Condition of Return

Condition of Return (2023)

“What makes a person do something like that?”, Special Agent Molcheck (Larry S. White) will ask as he picks up Dr Donald Thomas (Dean Cain) at the airport in Phoenix near the beginning of Condition of Return

We already know what the ‘something’ is, because the film’s prologue showed a visibly upset Eve (the ever excellent AnnaLynne McCord) praying and apologising in her car (and kissing her crucifix pendant), before stepping out, entering a church (her church!), and shooting Father Kinder (Ryan DeLuca) and several random, panicking congregants with a semi-automatic rifle – all on Easter Sunday. Having committed a truly unspeakable crime, leaving 13 dead and a further 11 injured, Eve is now in police custody. 

What made Eve carry out this apparently senseless act, though, is more elusive. Second-grade teacher Eve has immediately confessed, telling police that the devil made her do it. Donald has been flown in ostensibly to interview her and carry out a ‘preliminary evaluation’, but he is also under pressure from Assistant Director Mike Stafford (James Russo) to wrap things up fast and determine Eve sane and fit to stand trial, so that she can be executed – which seems to be what Eve herself would like too. 

The conversation conducted across the table between Donald and the chained Eve – and the stories, shown in flashback, about Eve’s troubled past (a miscarriage, a bad marriage, a prison stint) – form the bulk of Tommy Stovall’s feature (written by John Spare). Answers to that initial, oft repeated question of ‘why?’ – which theologians might call the problem of evil – here come overdetermined and ambiguous, but what emerges pushes at the extremities of both religion and reason. Eve is clearly a conflicted, even contradictory character: a Catholic so devout as to reject abortion and suicide out of hand, but not quite orthodox enough to spurn casual pre-marital sex – even with a minor, which Eve justifies via the Bill Clinton defence (“we weren’t having sex, I only blew him”) – and divorce, and eventually to countenance multiple cold-blooded murders, all in pursuit of what she wants, and more importantly what she vainly wants back.

Donald also wants. We first see him on the plane reading motivational book Think Rich Be Rich – and while he has already failed in his career as a psychologist, is currently failing as a writer, is not altogether happily married and is facing mounting debts and the foreclosure of his Kansas City home, he is not without his own ambitions for getting out of his rut, for putting his teenaged son through college, even for personal wealth and success. “We’re all screwed up on some level,” Donald tells Eve, trying to establish some kind of rapport with her – but in fact this woman of faith and this man of science have more in common than first appears. Both, after all, are willing to sacrifice certain values, even people, to get what they want – and are eventually linked by the character of Liza (Natasha Henstridge), a sharply dressed businesswoman who enters both their lives at crucial moments.

The very title of Condition of Return suggests a contractual transaction, and sure enough the film is full of documents being signed, and commitments being made, with compromising consequences that prove hellishly difficult to reverse. “I wrote a column once about coincidences and our tendency to apply cause and effect when there isn’t”, Donald will tell Eve when she suggests that good things that have happened in her life were in fact wishes being granted – with certain conditions attached – by a higher (or lower) power. Either reading is available in this film, as it remains entirely possible that these characters are succumbing to their own traumas and delusions, or that they are realising their own inner talents, or indeed that God and the Devil really are manipulating events in mysterious ways. Certainly Eve sees everything through the Catholic ideology of sin and redemption, but as Donald – also flawed, also corruptible – passes his own judgement on Eve, he allows the same moral questions to be filtered through a secular frame. 

Meanwhile the Stars and Stripes decorating the walls in the background of the interviews, and the setting of several infernal prison scenes on the ‘R[ight] Wing’, suggest that all these ethical dialectics are reflecting issues at the heart of a polarised America, where religion and capital form a strange partnership, where the desire to make things great again can come at a very high Faustian price, and where the American dream itself is just another deal with the devil.

strap: Tommy Stovall’s diabolical psychodrama interrogates the conflicting beliefs behind a mass shooting

© Anton Bitel