It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Joseph Ruben's "Return to Paradise" is a thriller that traps its characters in an exquisite dilemma involving life and death. Lewis, Sheriff and Tony are three Americans who meet in Malaysia and fool around in cheap huts on the beach, "God's own bathtub," enjoying the rum, the girls and the hashish. Sheriff and Tony return to New York. Lewis plans to go on to Borneo for a Greenpeace project to protect the orangutan. Instead, he's arrested for possession of the leftover hash and sentenced to death.
Two years pass before Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) are contacted in Manhattan and told all of this by Lewis' advocate, Beth (Anne Heche). The problem, she explains, is that Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) was over the legal limit for possession by one person, making him a trafficker, not a user. However, she's cut a deal with the authorities. If Sheriff and Tony will return to Malaysia and testify that they all owned the hashish together, Lewis will be allowed to live, and Sheriff and Tony will each have to spend three years apiece in prison. If only one of them returns, it'll be six years.
Students of logic will recognize this choice immediately. It's a variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, one of the oldest puzzles in mathematics and philosophy. Obviously, neither Tony nor Sheriff want Lewis to die. But they didn't know him that well, and they hardly want to spend three years of their lives in a Third World prison--let alone six years. The ideal solution for either Tony and Sheriff would be for the other guy to do six years while they get off free. But if both guys try this tactic, Lewis dies.
Hemingway, defining morality, once said that something is good if you feel good after doing it, and evil if you feel bad after doing it. How would you feel if you let Lewis hang? Good, because you were not spending three or six years in prison in Malaysia? Or bad, because you know it was your hashish, too? "Return to Paradise" watches Sheriff and Tony as they decide. And they do decide; this is not going to be one of those teasers that sets you up for a moral dilemma and then pulls a switcherooo and solves everything with an action climax.