The death of a young child is a frequent theme in films looking to expose cracks within marriages. “Don’t Look Now”, “Babel”, and “Rabbit Hole” showed couples in the wake of that most unthinkable tragedy. “Return to the Garden”, the new short film co-directed by Jake Hutchison & D. Erik Parks (from a script by Parks) retreads this familiar territory.
The film is bookended by visually slick but smarmy god’s eye view shots which push in and later pull out on a couple in blissful paradise. Suitable because paradise is what a relationship feels like before it has been tested. Their bond is established as idyllic and we see as they prepare for the arrival of their firstborn. But paradise falls apart when the child dies soon after delivery. When we next see the couple, the death has caused a rift in the marriage. The unnamed couple played by Allee Sutton Hethcoat and Isaiah Stratton do a solid work as the lovers whose marriage has gone cold. Their performances are strong and there is power in the scenes they share.
Unfortunately, the film lazily goes down the checklist of disintegrating marriages. Terse exchanges. Husband avoiding the wife by staying late at work. Red wine in the foreground to show that the wife has begun drinking. The wife begins flirting with having an affair. The formula is followed as the man becomes distant and the woman becomes a lush and a cheater.
It’s tricky to talk about “Return to the Garden” without addressing that this is a movie with a heavy Christian message. The Kirk Cameron ironic yuckfest “Fireproof” also showed two Evangelicals saving their boring marriage. Scenes are punctuated by bible verses recalling the Adam & Eve story from the book of Genesis. The film never elevates above a hollow morality play. The characters are ciphers with generic lives and generic jobs. The opening and closing shots could just as easily be taken from a commercial for an erectile dysfunction drug.
All of this is frustrating because the directors make mostly intelligent choices on the technical side of the production. Along with co-directing, Park edited the film and makes good use of elliptical editing and jumpcuts to give the film life and energy. There is a real, lyrical beauty to some of the scenes.