A bedraggled woman sits in a parked car, muttering prayers while clutching a gold crucifix. She gets out of her car, a pack slung over her shoulder. She walks into an as-yet unidentified building. She meets people she knows and warns them away as she parts double doors and enters a church mass in progress. The serving priest hesitates, seeing her standing there alone flanked by seated parishioners. He addresses her as she unslings her pack, takes out an automatic weapon, and opens fire.
This is the opening scene of Condition of Return, a new film by director Tommy Stovall.
The woman is Eve Sullivan, played with poise by AnnaLynne McCord. After her act of carnage, Eve is taken into custody, shackled, and awaits a psychoanalyst, Dr. Donald Thomas (Dean Cain) whose exam will deem her fit for trial. Which presiding officer Stafford (James Russo) sorely wants—put this nut behind bars, he hisses, in an open-and-shut hate crime case. Blame it on loose gun laws? Mental illness? Nope. Eve insists the Devil made her do it.
What ensues is a series of flashbacks showing how Eve, a second-grade teacher in Phoenix, Arizona (where Condition was filmed), came to commit such a heinous act. Her backstory includes sex in the men's room, a miscarriage, adultery, child porn, murder, and incarceration. The cat-and-mouse parrying between Eve and Dr. Thomas goes on for an hour (in a film with a 93-minute runtime), so long that we might forget why we're here. Eve believes in God, but in the big house her prayers take her on a detour. And that launches what the movie is really (?) about: Eve's calling up demons and how they lead her to commit mass murder.
Condition of Return is a lot. Every character has baggage, not just Eve but her husband Darren (Ryan Bates), her twofaced best friend Jessica (Cami Storm), and even her shrink. Dr. Thomas has been discredited in his field, his house is about to be foreclosed upon, and his book career is going nowhere. Between his questioning of Eve, he takes calls from his wife, who berates his ability to provide.
But Condition of Return is AnnaLynne McCord's movie. As Eve, she's in practically every scene and plays a range of attitudes, from party girl to penitent. Ms. McCord is known for her TV work, including FX's Nip/Tuck and the CW's 90210. She throws herself into the part, playing reasonable, resigned, coy, hysterical, often employing that regal stillness she developed as a fashion model.
Dean Cain is affable enough as Dr. Thomas but—speaking of baggage—comes with his own inescapable Wikipedia profile: ex-Buffalo Bill, ex-Superman, NRA spokesperson, reality show host, real estate flipper. His strongest role recently has been as Maria Bamford's ex-fiancé in her Netflix series Lady Dynamite. Character actor James Russo, memorable as far back as Beverly Hills Cop and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, is suitably grizzled as the top cop but has too few scenes: he mostly waits for Thomas in corridors and growls at him for not signing off on Eve's sanity. And the statuesque Natasha Henstridge, she of the Species series and a former fashion model herself, arrives to tempt everybody to hell.
Condition of Return is Tommy Stovall fifth film, after 2005's Hate Crime and 2019's Room for Rent. His direction and editing choices are fresh: they surprise us and pull us in. Director of Photography Mic Waugh's limited color palette—iron grays and stately blues--gives the whole enterprise a sophisticated sheen. John Spare's script kicks up a lot of dust, plot-wise, but it's unclear how it all adds up. For example, a significant character's entrance comes late in the film and changes the tone entirely.
Is Condition of Return a genre movie? If so, its publicity materials downplay its strengths. The official trailer has a flash of a scene with a pentagram (the five-sided star symbol used to summon Satan) before turning back to the human drama. The poster features the principals—Cain, McCord, and Henstridge—staring at the viewer as if in a Lifetime movie. Eve's hands are joined in prayer, snaked through with a rosary, the only religious iconography in evidence. Not a pentagram in sight.
Even the title Condition of Return is confounding: "condition" placed on whom, to "return" to what, exactly? Eve has no chance of returning to anything like a normal life: Dr. Thomas' evaluation either sends her to prison or to an institution.
Or does Condition of Return have an agenda? Do we miss key messages while expecting genre tropes? The rise of digital filmmaking and streaming has made it easy for producers outside of Hollywood to distribute their own cultural takes and codes. What is Condition of Return saying, really, about the role of religion in mass shootings, or the efficacy of the devil? Why, in the final scene, is a character "punished" simply for having bad luck?
Or maybe it's not bait-and-switch at all, just confused storytelling. But if decades of devil worship movies have taught us anything, it's that you don’t mess with pentagrams unless you mean business.
Condition of Return. Directed by Tommy Stovall. 2023. Released by Pasidg Productions. 93 minutes. In theaters nationwide, and on Cable VOD and Vudu.