“Return” opens slowly on the face of Kelli, sitting in an airport, still in fatigues, waiting, worried anticipation in her eyes. When her husband Mike and two young daughters appear, worry melts from her body as she grabs hold of them all. This, however, may be her last moment of relief, for Kelli is returning from the war and it is unlikely that anything, for her, will ever be quite the same. She is revered in town for the sacrifice she made, but she rejects such reverence. She’s been some place they haven’t been and they will never understand even if she could express it, which she can’t. She grows distant from her husband, unfocused in her child-rearing, and bored to anger with her blue collar job and its repetitive, mindless tasks. She attempts to rebond with her girlfriends as they drink to excess and talk about the petty, inconsequential slings and arrows of small town life in the rust belt. Kelli knows what she no longer wants, she just doesn’t know what it is that she does want or how to express it. When asked about what happened to her “over there,” she answers in the oblique – “I didn’t get raped in a Porta-John and I didn’t get blown up by an IED.” She punishes herself for what didn’t happen to her.
As her sense of isolation grows, her marriage begins to fall apart and she is helpless to stop it, for it, too, seems to be a useless ornament on a non-existent tree of life. Her only lifeline is her relationship with her daughters and when that starts to fray, Kelli’s tenuous grasp on the present begins to disintegrate.
Director and writer Liza Johnson, a visual artist and professor of art at Williams College, developed this work at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. The influence of Kathryn Bigelow is felt throughout and it should be of note that Bigelow also started her professional career as a visual artist and taught at the California Institute for the Arts before embarking on a career in film. In some ways, “Return” attempts to parallel Bigelow’s masterpiece, “The Hurt Locker.” In that film, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is only alive and can only find a purposeful existence in death-defying circumstances. Upon returning home, he is lost and unable to adapt. He, like Kelli, is unable to live in the present and chooses to return to war, a choice, however, that Kelli does not want to make.
This is a slow, deliberate film; there is no discernable story – only a portrait of a troubled woman who is unable to find a path, or when she does find one, it is invariably a wrong one. We are asked to travel with her and see the world through her eyes as she struggles, asking herself the question, “What if you go away and change only to return home where everything and everyone has stayed the same?” Through her eyes, everything is betrayal; but in reality, it’s not, it’s just the way the hand is played.
The cast is extremely accomplished, led by Linda Cardelini, an underused actress of great strength and a face that is expressive in its placidity. Michael Shannon as her husband Mike exudes frustration and sympathy even while covering up his hidden betrayal of his wife. Talia Balsam, another wonderful but woefully underused actress, provides a Greek chorus-like backdrop of cautionary advice to Kelli; and John Slattery deftly plays a vet whose journey the wrong way down a one way street is something of a wake-up call to our heroine. Of special note is the eldest daughter played with empathy beyond her very young years by 9 year old Emma Rayne Lyle. The rest of the cast is good, though not at the level of the leads.
Johnson is deliberately traveling in an ambiguous world in dealing with a vet returning from an unwanted war against the backdrop of the banality and bleakness of a small town community crushed by the recession. Her ambitions were great, if not entirely successful, as she was making an attempt to cover ground that was so stunningly and poignantly covered in the far more complex and must-see masterpiece “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a film from 1946 that won 7 Academy Awards. But as a first feature, this is a great start.
Opening Friday February 10 at the Laemmle Monica 4