Brothers Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) are used to being fatherless in modern Russia. They mess around with other kids in their unnamed town, climb a derelict tall tower and dare each other to jump into the water below (Vanya can't -- he's afraid of heights), then call each other chicken. It's when their father suddenly reappears after an absence of a dozen years that life gets difficult for the two boys in Andrey Zvyagintsev's extraordinary debut drama The Return. The stunning psychological thriller -- top prizewinner at the 2003 Venice Film Festival and Golden Globe nominee this year for best foreign film -- is one of those great, unnerving movies that lingers in the mind long after the lights have come up. Influenced by the mysterious intensity of Zvyagintsev's Russian filmmaking elders Andrei Tarkovsky (''Solaris'') and Alexander Sokurov (''Russian Ark'') but original on its own terms, ''The Return'' marks a brilliant filmmaking beginning for the 39-year-old actor and TV director.
Where did the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) return from? Why did he leave? What does he want with his sons now, pulling them away from the comfort of their mother and grandmother and pushing them on a fishing trip that clearly appears to be a cover-up for a sinister adult mission neither the boys nor the viewer can determine? Andrey, the older son, craves reconnection with the papa he once knew, and tries to please and rebond with the sadistic parent who now ignores, abuses, and bullies his children. Vanya, who never knew the man, is more belligerent. ''Tell me why you came? What for?'' he demands, the young actor's face a knot of resentment.
Dread -- and the threat of murder -- builds as cruel father and bewildered sons drive deeper into uncharted wetlands; there are no answers to any questions, but there are moments of tranquillity when the boys find joy in fishing. Meanwhile, the director and his intuitive cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman assemble scenes of utter beauty, simply in the documentation of trees and sand, letting as much happen just outside the frame -- and inside our heads -- as on the screen. ''The Return'' can be interpreted politically or even biblically or not at all, as the elemental struggles between dominance and submission, impulse and action, man and nature, father and son, play out to their stunning conclusion.