I have to hand it to Tommy Stovall, the director of Condition of Return. I would not have bet any money on it panning out as it did. The drama kept me guessing what was coming right to the end. But that’s probably because I hadn’t read any of his tweets or publicity about the film, which I learned after watching the film commit the unfathomable sin of giving away the biggest surprise.
Eve (AnnaLynne McCord) is an unremarkable girl who has picked up a deeply unremarkable husband. A devout Catholic, she works hard to set up a home with Darren (Ryan Bates), but things don’t pan out. Now, psychologist Dr. Donald Thomas (Dean Cain) is traveling across the country to determine if she is fit to stand trial for a massacre.
Like Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Condition of Return has a protagonist who offers no defense for her crime, instead insisting the machinery of the state fry her in short order. This provides us with an intriguing turn by McCord, initially preoccupied only with hastening her fate, then coolly revealing her story when Thomas seemingly establishes an interest in her.
The script by John Spare is bananas, or at least it is when the third act arrives. For the most part, though, it is a low-key drama that skillfully circles why Eve has committed such an act. It takes its time and uses some pretty smart action to move the plot and characters along. The cast and script work very well. Cain is good, ambitious, and empathetic, working under the constant hazard that he is becoming a kind of snake handler for fame and money rather than a healer. But each actor’s portrayal feels alive.
“…determine if she is fit to stand trial for a massacre.”
But what really sets this apart is the direction and cinematography. Stovall has a few indie movies under his belt, and his experience shows. Condition of Return is ludicrously well mounted. A fair amount of the film is made up of conversation, and it says something that these scenes have lots of tension and are built thoughtfully around the characters’ interiors.
The cinematography is excellent. Mic Waugh is a Hollywood veteran who excels as the director of photography here. Many of the visual motifs and lighting brought to mind David Fincher. Stovall also edits like a dream, with the whole film snapping together seamlessly and at pace.
However, Condition of Return is not all roses. There are one or two awkward lines, and the skipping between genres, while surprising and deftly done, can also have you rolling your eyes at some of the crazy diversions from an otherwise sober drama. At its heart, this is a very smart two-hander between McCord and Cain.
Oh, I am aware that 1990s glamourous star Natasha Henstridge gets star billing, and yet I haven’t mentioned her. This is because she does her work towards the finale, and I don’t want to give anything away (unlike every inch of official publicity, which eagerly ruins most of the plot for some reason). In any event, Henstridge brings her scenes home handsomely, though that top billing belongs to McCord and Cain. In fact, being slightly face blind, I assumed McCord was Henstridge for some of the picture. I thought, wow, she’s looking good for her age. Then, when she finally appeared, I found myself thinking, wow, she’s really looking good for her age.
Condition of Return is a wackily speculative excursion behind today’s frequently dire headlines. The drama is engaging, with Cain and McCord playing off each believably. Even if the conclusion is ridiculous to some, this is still well worth catching.
"…well worth catching."