‘Return’: No going home

February 9, 2012


At some point in the future, when they assemble a festival of films devoted to the still-rippling effects of George W. Bush’s unnecessary war in Iraq, you can add Liza Johnson’s film “Return” to the list of movies that deserve to be seen.

Like Neil Burger’s “The Lucky Ones” and a few others, “Return” is not about the war itself, but about its effects on those who served in the war zone. Unlike “Stop/Loss” and others, however, “Return” isn’t even about a soldier who has seen combat. Rather, it’s about a female reservist, Kelli (Linda Cardellini), who has been part of the support personnel in the combat zone, returning home to her husband, Mike, (Michael Shannon) and her young children, who she hasn’t seen in too long.

Returning home to a rust-belt town, she finds herself on edge – nervous, unable to sleep or concentrate. She goes back to the factory job that’s been held for her while she’s been away but finds the work repetitive and meaningless. She feels as though she has nothing in common with her friends – or her husband, for that matter.

Yet this isn’t a movie about a soldier coping with the trauma of combat or a crisis of conscience over some atrocity he got caught up in. Rather, it’s about the intensity of the experience – wanted or unwanted – and the difficulty in scaling back from a constant dose of adrenaline. In that respect, it resembles parts of “The Hurt Locker,” when Jeremy Renner’s character returns to the U.S. and can’t cope with the dullness of everyday life after spending his time defusing bombs.

It’s not that Kelli craves action; she wasn’t a combat soldier. But life in the Middle East offered daily encounters with danger and the constant possibility of death. Life in the suburbs seems mundane by comparison, no matter how much she missed her family.

Cardellini has a young face but the weariness of a much older woman and the ability to convey anguish, disappointment and frustration with a minimum of effort. She captures the anxiousness and longing of a woman who just wants her old life back – and who is slowly realizing that she’s never gong to have that.

Shannon plays her husband as a guy who doesn’t want to reveal just how tired he is of being the responsible partner in the marriage – and who wants some credit for the sacrifices he’s made. But he’s no angel and Shannon captures the narcissism and lack of empathy that come to the fore upon his wife’s return. John Slattery turns up toward the end as a fellow vet who understands what Kelli is going through and, for a moment, seems to offer her a sympathetic shoulder.

“Return” is honest and downbeat, a movie with no revelations but still some painful truths to share. In a bigger movie, Cardellini might be experiencing a break-out moment. As it is, she does outstanding work in a smaller film.

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