No matter how powerful Cardellini’s performance is, a silent sufferer taking so much of the screen-time just doesn't do enough to pull on our heartstrings.
It’s a concept we’re all familiar with: a soldier comes home from war and finds it difficult to readjust to normal life. So what is it that makes Return something we’ve never seen on screens before? In her debut feature film, Liza Johnson interestingly subverts the typically expected gender roles of this genre, giving us a strong female lead in Kelli (Linda Cardellini). With so many soldiers being women these days, it seems about time.
Clearly displaying that she appreciates just how much this topic has been dealt with, Johnson makes a point of avoiding many of the cliches we’re used to. There are no flashbacks to the war, no moments of hysterical crying or yelling – and in perhaps the bravest move of the film, no drama. Kelli is rather against talking about her time in the Middle East, a trait that we come to see as fairly unhealthy. Her girlfriends are full of questions, eager for her to open up in the belief that it will be a cathartic experience for her, but Kelli refuses to be the victim. “There were a lot of people who had it a lot worse than me,” she repeats, as though it’s something she has programmed into herself in order to get by. But when she casually says “I wasn’t raped, assaulted, or bullied, like a lot of women; I had it good,” one of the most poignant lines of the film comes almost in the form of a throwaway. Her matter-of-fact tone and the sheer lack of gravitas it’s given mean it rings with truth – this isn’t something she says for the attention, but something that is so genuine it’s barely worth mentioning. Here, in the understated simplicity and the chilling honesty, lies the beauty of Johnson’s film.
Everything about Cardellini’s performance screams muted power, and it’s done with great effect, conveying all of her emotions through a filter: a chronic detachment to the world around her. But her supporting cast are frustratingly underused, particularly Michael Shannon in the role of her husband Mike. While it’s nice to not simply see an age old story from a different perspective, the focus on Kelli becomes a little dull, making it harder to feel an emotional connection to any of the other characters. We can sympathize when Kelli seems to go through the motions of daily life in a robotic manner, but even her husband seems really quite humdrum. He’s neither great nor awful at anything, but instead entirely average. Her friends seem shallow and obsessed with trivialities to the point of irritation. Her job, and the characters that come along with it, are also tedious – but would stapling various pieces of metal to each other have been interesting before the war? It’s not really a surprise that she’s bored when she comes back; she should have been bored before she left.
It doesn’t help that Johnson’s fallback events are alcohol issues, marriage troubles and custody battles. Among well written lines, such quintessential events in a returning soldier’s life make the script seem disjointed and lacking in depth; they take something vital away from the truly moving moments, such as when Kelli spontaneously sleeps on the floor of her children’s room. There are so many of these silent, tender scenes that convey Kelli’s internal struggle far more effectively than something as predictable as her getting a DUI, but Johnson tries to force a basic progressive plot on what is otherwise an interesting dilemma. Her saving grace is the unexpected yet surprisingly believable twist in the second half, making it so much clearer to see just how hopeless Kelli’s situation is. I won’t reveal too much about it, but it’s an interesting way to bring home the despair felt by this woman – it removes the distance of her reality by making her seem more vulnerable.
Kelli is transformed by her time away – that much is clear. But we as an audience never see what life was like before she left, instead having to guess at it from her current interactions. This, paired with the two-dimensional nature of the other characters, makes it difficult to feel emotionally involved in the film; we’re often left wanting to feel more but just unable to. Return may have its flaws, but it is nevertheless a refreshing take on a sensitive topic. The problem is that no matter how powerful Cardellini’s performance is, a silent sufferer taking so much of the screen-time just doesn’t do enough to pull on our heartstrings.