Director: Liza Johnson
Starring: Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery, Talia Balsam
The United States’ military forays into the Middle East over the past decade-plus have resulted in a fair number of big screen dramas of domestic re-entry, but few have the thoughtful delicacy of the quiet, lived-in “Return,” whose very title has a relaxed connotation that the movie robustly embodies. Spurning crazy outburst or demonstrative dramatic flair for something more measured, fragile and almost ineffable, writer-director Liza Johnson’s narrative feature film debut is built around a standout performance from ex-“Freaks and Geeks” star Linda Cardellini.
“Return” unfolds in the rural Midwest, where supply line soldier Kelli (Cardellini) feels a free-floating sense of dislocation from her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and her two young daughters upon re-entering the workforce (at a small local factory) and domestic life. Unable to emotionally reach out and discuss her experiences and feelings, Kelli becomes paranoid that Mike might be having an affair, and starts drinking a bit than she should. After a car accident, Kelli has her license suspended and is sentenced to court-ordered rehab meetings, where she meets Bud (John Slattery), a charming if cranky older war veteran who none too slowly reveals that his own commitment to treatment might be tenuous at best.
So many so-called “war movies” are about the bombast and concrete qualities of combat, of course, but even “coming-home” stories like this are usually loaded up with a lot more audio-visual artifice, in an attempt to create an impactful audience identification with the disorienting nature of the psychological after-effects of war. “Return” is the antithesis of that sort of needling work — a subjective document that plays out against the banality of everyday existence. In eschewing the easy tack of using Kelli and Mike’s adolescent children as easy emotional triggers and instead playing out its drama in slow motion, and occasionally nearly imperceptible strokes, director Johnson crafts a more deeply resonant work.
Abetting her are Shannon (in yet another superlative, sympathetic supporting performance) and Cardellini, who here gets to stretch in substantive ways that even her six-year stint on “ER” never really afforded. “Return” is a film about depression and the gulf it opens up between those suffering from it and various touchstones in their lives. While money is tight, yes, there are no absolutely huge and insurmountable problems for Kelli and Mike; it’s merely that human interaction, not to mention joy and pleasure, have become impossible strangers. The colors seem a bit off, Kelli’s daughters seem distant, and the mindless, gossipy chatter of her girlfriends irritates her. The affecting beauty of Johnson’s humanistic movie is that there isn’t blame here, only a swollen sense of sadness and regret at people in pain.
Written by: Brent Simon