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Losing the Peace

Return avoids every cliché of the coming-home-from-battle genre—and finds power in silence.

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Linda Cardellini and Michael Shannon in Return.  

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.

Following some aborted higher-budget projects, the young director of Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston, journeyed to Albania to make another compelling film touching on the perils of being young—that’s it, merely young—in a culture without justice. The awkward, formal title The Forgiveness of Blood evokes the awkward, formal set of laws called the Kanun, mandating confinement to one’s house on pain of death for families in which one member has committed a high crime. After their father and uncle kill a landowner in a long-lived dispute over road access, the teenage Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and his younger sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), are yanked from school and shut away for what could well be years, their development literally arrested. With his father in hiding and childishly unwilling to take responsibility, Nik labors fruitlessly to negotiate a settlement.

Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Andamion Murataj, Marston treats the story as a case study rich in absurdities—among them the vision of children playing computer games in a home quarantined on the word of ancient and increasingly maladaptive mores. The end is almost too painstakingly respectful of Albanian families still locked up and going mad. The film might well have been called The Punishment of Blood Feuds.

The gut-whomping, high-concept romantic thriller This Means War is not a distinguished addition to director McG’s oeuvre. The puffy-lipped gay-bar pinups Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play best-bud CIA agents competing for Reese Witherspoon, who scrunches up her face, rolls her eyes, and shows off her curvy little twig of a body. (The most finely tuned calipers could find no adipose tissue on any of them.) On leave from his role as Captain Kirk, Pine loosens up his Shatner-esque mugging muscles, but Hardy uses his patented poetic stupor as a force field, as protection from jokes more bludgeoning than anything in Warrior.

Return
Directed by Liza Johnson. NR.

The Forgiveness of Blood
Directed by Joshua Marston. NR.

This Means War
Directed by McG. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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