(No longer in theaters)
Feb 10, 2012
The homecoming drama Return has an anguished plainness. Its protagonist, Kelli (Linda Cardellini), is a reservist newly sprung from either Afghanistan or Iraq—it’s unspecified—with a load of bad memories that are also unspecified (beyond a mention of dead animals on the side of the road and other “weird shit”). By leaving the spaces unfilled, writer-director Liza Johnson ensures that (a) there no hackneyed flashbacks or tremulous, revelatory monologues and (b) the movie is always in the present tense. That tense is crucial to its power. The deepest moments are of surfaces, of Kelli staring out a car window at the Rust Belt landscape. She’s visibly relieved to be home but not remotely at home. She’s not Back There, either. With the barest of means, Johnson evokes the new veteran’s emotional limbo.
Some of us have been waiting since Freaks and Geeks for Cardellini to have a big-screen role this rich, and she’s confident enough to give an almost entirely inward performance. We don’t know quite why Kelli sleeps on the rug in her children’s room instead of beside her husband (Michael Shannon, in a finely shaded portrait of a limited man), only that the alternative would feel … unsafe. She throws back drinks with her friends in a simulation of the old hell-raising spirit, but her gaudy poses are mechanical, with no follow-through. After her husband moves out with the kids, her only respite is in carousing with an erratic older vet (John Slattery) she meets in a court-mandated post-DUI class. Slattery, for all his volatility, brilliantly captures what’s dangerous about some addicts: They are more persuasive impersonating people in the moment than actual people in the moment are.
There are a couple of hundred instances in which Johnson or her actors could take condescending short cuts and slip into white-trash stereotypes, but I didn’t see any—only gifted performers vanishing into their characters, refusing to pass judgment. Near the end, Johnson flirts with melodrama but only, it turns out, as a mark of Kelli’s desperation. She tries to act out but just isn’t crazy enough. The open ending is one of the few of late that haven’t made me cry “Cheat!” This quiet, naturalistic film has a classical arc and a lingering sting.