It seems like every couple of weeks the media reminds us how little we understand of the long-term emotional and mental scars bore by the men and women fighting overseas. Director Liza Johnson's tempered, subdued yet emotionally resonant Return doesn't attempt to spell out how Kelli (a humble, skilled balancing act by a terrific Linda Cardellini), a National Guard reservist returning from a tour of duty with the possibility of being called into action again, obtains the damage that in no short time derails her work and fractures her home life. Johnson, who also penned the script, smartly doesn't look for answers but presents a portrait that remains compelling for the entirety of the film's 90-minute runtime. The director has an enviable asset in Cardellini, who turns in a performance that is barely showy and never maudlin, imbuing a conflicted, error-prone character with sympathetic life. Awards-wise, it'll probably be looked over, but boy if it doesn't serve as a reminder that Cardellini is not only a reliable actress but also a damn good one.
Journeying back to her Ohio small town, Kelli is welcomed with open arms by a small cadre of friends and husband Mike (Michael Shannon, playing the straight man without batting an eyelash). Kelli looks exhausted but happy, in particular at the sight of her two daughters, Jackie (Emma Rayne Lyle) and Bree (played by awesomely cute toddler twins Tabitha and Victoria Depew). She settles into a lawn chair with ease, letting a curse word slip, which slights Mike, one of the many invisible blows and bruises that the couple will soon trade. Settling into everyday life, Kelli returns to her pre-service work at a manufacturing plant, but something is clearly off.
It seems as if we've been trained to look for cracks in the psyche of movie soldiers post-service. Johnson is seemingly aware of this trend, electing wisely to compose a full-bodied portrait of a slippery slope where the crash doesn't happen in the course of a day but is instead etched into the mind like a prisoner counting days on cold concrete walls. Kelli loses her grip by degrees and Cardellini manages to capture the complexity of this descent. From one drink too many at an outing with her friends to the startling realization that she doesn't want to do her job anymore, there's no respite, no quick fix for Kelli as friends and family ask her again and again what it was like over there and she responds with a terse "A lot of people had it worse than I did."
Spoiling some of the plot of Return probably wouldn't do much harm, but something tells this writer not to. It's not intricate or building up to a groundbreaking revelation, but as things inevitably go worse for Kelli, as her marriage falls apart and the possibility of stable daily life is snatched away, Bud (a bearded John Slattery), a fellow veteran, albeit an older gentleman, becomes a constant anchor and maybe something more. The third act of Return steers from easy answers and instead offers a glimpse of hope, a possibility of turning a life back on track. The final moments of Cardellini looking ahead with an unspoken intensity are truly memorable - she is not out of the woods yet, and maybe never will be, but this woman is committed to wading out of the muck and grasping on to something tangible. In Kelli's case, that may mean being a good mother, and while there's no doubt she loves her daughters, the possibility of regaining former stability is up in the air. Return scores points in this writer's book for bravely sticking it out and leaving us with a hint of real life - messy, ugly but for a few moments every day, filled with longing and hope.
The widescreen 1.85:1 transfer is fairly standard, and the film bears the earmarks of a small-scale indie in that the color scheme leans toward the monochromatic. That may be in part intentional, and the intimacy gained from well-earned close-ups of Cardellini is worth it. Flesh tones and general environs are all solid.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is equally deployed in service of the film. The lovely acoustic soundtrack mixes well with quieter scene, including a terrific one late in the film when Kelli ventures out into nature. There is also a 2.0 mix available, but if you can, go with the 5.1.
Several deleted scenes, mostly featuring more Cardellini and an Audio Commentary with director Liza Johnson and cinematographer Anne Etheridge are available. The commentary is a decent listen, with the two ladies sharing stories of the close-knit production, character motivation and the difficulties of achieving certain shots.
Return is undoubtedly worth a single watch, while later viewings may lend limited rewards. Still, for both its uncompromising dedication to capturing something approaching real life with elegance and Cardellini powerful turn, it comes Highly Recommended.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...