Let’s get this out of the way immediately – Return to Sender, a so-called “thriller” that exists solely to capitalize on the icily serene beauty of star Rosamund Pike, is no Gone Girl. Artless, queasy and agonizingly dull from first frame to last, it’s more akin to a particularly ugly Lifetime Original Movie than that delectably vicious cult phenomenon or really anything with which you’d expect to see a star of Pike’s caliber associated.
And yet, director Fouad Mikati somehow landed the Oscar nominee – whose deer-in-headlights terror on screen could easily have been elicited by her realization that Return to Sender will always lurk on her IMDb page. She plays dedicated nurse Miranda, who tends to her patients with practiced precision but shows none of the same enthusiasm for her love life. Miranda, unfortunately, is a pancake-flat character, made ever flatter by Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett’s howlingly awful script. And Pike, even with her subtly off-kilter presence and a stare that could freeze your blood in your veins, can’t quite connect with her, so ends up ripping off her own Amy Dunne performance instead.
Miranda agrees to a blind date, only to open the door for the wrong man, William (Shiloh Fernandez), who rapes her in her own home. It’s actually in that ver-early-on sequence that Return to Sender reveals itself to be one of the worst kinds of thrillers: the kind without a pulse. Despite featuring one of the most harrowing and horrific ordeals any film can depict, not to mention serving as the emotional hook for all that follows, the scene barely registers. Blame Mikati – throughout Return to Sender, the director fails to craft a single moment, even that one, that compels or grips. His apathy behind the camera allows the movie to just lie there, cold as a cadaver.
The next hour or so of Return to Sender charts Miranda’s unconventional reaction to the attack. To be sure, there’s some standard PTSD stuff carelessly thrown in, with occasional scenes of her once-steady hands trembling as she attempts to ice a cake or fix up her home, but Miranda’s moving on also turns out to involve visiting her rapist in prison and forming a flirtatious, warm relationship with him. The script tries to play Miranda’s actions off as a mystery, as to whether her intentions are merely therapeutic or more sinister, but few will be fooled due to Pike’s newfound affiliation with secret sociopaths.
That’s probably for the best, though – the pic is so badly, superficially written that an attempt to sell a wacky forbidden romance between a victim and her victimizer would have felt even more nauseating. Instead, everyone in the audience will be painfully aware that it’s just a matter of time until the payback begins in earnest. Whether anyone will be in their seats for that is another question – Return to Sender is so uncertain about where it’s going and what it wants to be that whenever Mikati, Beauchamp and Gossett do strike out in a particular direction, it’s haphazard and half-hearted. And when the movie finally gets to the cruel and unusual punishment (she’s a nurse with sharp objects and dark designs, I’ll let you fill in the blanks), it’s just sicko brutality without a drop of emotional payoff.
Making its telepic underpinnings even less bearable is the fact that Return to Sender masquerades as a female-empowerment revenge fantasy while in fact being far from it. Films that deal with the horrific issue of rape, and the violation of female agency by a dominant masculine force, have a responsibility to condemn that same atrocity, but the movie has a stomach-churning pattern of leading its audience to overlook the crime, both in dialogue and camerawork.
The nurses Miranda work with barely address the assault while pushing her to “find a man,” Fernandez often plays the rapist as a sexy-smug innocent who’s just the guy Miranda needs in order to to loosen up a bit, and Mikati frequently ogles Pike’s form with the same lascivious male gaze that her victimizer employs. And that’s not to mention one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments, in which a real-estate agent shutting Miranda down for trying to sell her house simply suggests she “plant some rose bushes” (and because it’s that kind of movie, she does).
In the end, Return to Sender may actually be too stupid, trashy and misshapen to be worthy of your ire. In that case, bestow upon Pike a little pity – the actress, hot off an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl, could not have asked for a less flattering follow-up, and though the bargain-bin intentions of the flick mean it’s certainly not going to hang over her head for long, it’s certainly got to sting to go directly from a David Fincher-directed mystery-thriller that was one of last year’s most roundly acclaimed movies to something that will certainly rank among this year’s worst.
Pike and audiences alike deserve far better than this agonizingly pointless and amateurishly made exploitation flick. Just take the title's advice.