Returning from a tour of duty
from a tour of duty in the Middle East, reserve soldier Kelli (Linda Cardellini)
is desperate to reunite with her family and resume her old life in the quiet
Mid-Western town where she was brought up.
But almost from the moment she lands back in the US, the
joy of her homecoming curdles. Her
reunion with well-meaning hubby Mike (bug-eyed loon du jour Michael Shannon, on restrained
form. And what’s the point of a
restrained Michael Shannon?) is less passionate and stiffer (not that kind of
stiff) than she’d hoped, her relationship with her daughters has suffered now
Mike is the primary caregiver, her job bores her and her friends’ trivial lives
and their chatter irritates her.
Kelli may physically be home, but she’s not back.
She can’t concentrate, can’t adjust to the humdrum,
mundane routine of civilian life, her husband doesn’t understand her, her
friends don’t care, no-one knows what she’s been through. Life has moved on without her. Impulsively, she quits her job. When she discovers Mike’s been cheating
on her, she starts drinking, goes on a bender and is arrested for drunk
driving. After Mike leaves her,
taking the kids with him, Kelli’s life spirals out of control. Forced to attend court-appointed
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she finds herself turning to rebellious fellow
AA member and Vietnam veteran Bud (Mad
Men’s John Slattery) for comfort.
Boasting a terrific, subtle performance from Cardellini
who’s probably most familiar to UK audience’s for her roles in TV’s ER and Freaks and Geeks or as Velma in the Scooby Doo movies, Return
is a restrained study of a woman suffering from depression brought on by Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder. The
script is intelligent and naturalistic, the dialogue sharp, the direction
low-key, first-time director Johnson
allowing Cardellini the room to give possibly the best performance of her
While soulful and sympathetic, Cardellini resists making
Kelli either too likeable or too much of a victim. She’s a woman who’s obviously been through a traumatic
experience but the ghosts that haunt her go largely unexamined, every question
about how she’s coping or what service was like is met with the terse, rote
statement: “A lot of people had it worse than I did.”
Wisely, Johnson never reveals what Kelli’s been through,
there are no explanatory flashbacks, no melodramatic catharsis. Real life’s just not like that. Kelli simply tries to get on with her
life. She’s emotionally closed
off, stoically self-reliant, the only person she can make any sort of connection
with is Slattery’s volatile fellow vet.
There’s no cinematic nobility to Kelli’s suffering, just an
unsentimental passive self-pity that feels painfully honest.
A modest, slow-burning, downbeat portrait of a woman on the
edge, Return provides a human
perspective on the mental costs of the War on Terror built around Cardellini’s
devastating, truthful performance.