The coming-home genre is so rife with stock ingredients that first I'd like to tell you what Liza Johnson's very fine drama Return doesn't do. The camera doesn't move in on returning-veteran Kelli, played by Linda Cardellini, as the sound of battle rises and she's back in her head on the front lines. The film doesn't give you what I call the "psychodrama striptease," in which a past trauma is revealed piece by piece until you're finally, at the end, shown the essential bit. In fact, nothing in particular is said about what happened Over There — including where Over There is, Iraq or Afghanistan. Kelli mentions dead animals by the side of the road, knowing — like everyone — people who died, and some "weird" stuff, and that's it.
So why is what's not in Return important? Because it means the film is always in the present tense, the here and now, and that's crucial to its power. The deepest moments are, paradoxically, of surfaces, of Kelli staring out a car window at the nondescript Ohio rust-belt landscape broken by the occasional tidy neighborhood or industrial plant or boarded-up business. There are many long shots out her car window, but they're not, as in so many indie movies, meant to convey the sameness of everyday life: Cardellini's face is too expressive. Her Kelli is visibly relieved to be home, but she's not remotely at home.
Some of us have waited since Freaks & Geeks to see Cardellini in a role this rich. She gives a remarkable performance — and one that's almost entirely inward.
Kelli does at least attempt to come out of her shell for her family: a young daughter, another barely a toddler, and a husband played by Michael Shannon in a good, finely shaded portrait of a limited man. He's awkward with Kelli, going on about his plumbing jobs, clearly keeping something back, and their attempts at physical intimacy are increasingly rare. She impulsively quits her factory job for reasons she can't articulate. She throws back drinks with girlfriends, but it seems like a mechanical simulation of her old hell-raising spirit. Her only respite comes briefly, with an older vet, Bud, played by John Slattery, whom she meets in a court-mandated class after she's arrested for drunken driving. Both their licenses are suspended, but that doesn't stop him from giving her a lift and some advice.
The scene they share contains quite a number of curse words and tells you a lot — that someone so volatile is the one person who makes Kelli feel safe. Slattery captures brilliantly what's dangerous about some addicts: They do a better job acting like they're in the moment than people who are actually in the moment. His Bud is a hoot — and yet erratic and scary, and we pray that Kelli doesn't go down that same road.
There must be 100 moments in Return in which director Liza Johnson and her actors could take condescending short cuts and slip into working-class stereotypes, but I didn't detect any slippage — only gifted performers disappearing into their characters. Near the end, there's a sequence in which the movie threatens to turn melodramatic, but the film is stronger for pulling back. The unresolved ending is one of the few of late that haven't made me want to cry, "Cheat!"
Return is quiet and naturalistic, but its plainness is suffused with anguish. With the barest of means, Johnson and Cardellini evoke the emotional limbo of a vet who comes home to find no signs of the war we're fighting and no way to make sense of where she was and what it meant. That lack of resolution, of a traditional story arc, is what makes the movie feel so real. It's what Return doesn't do that has a lingering sting.
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