As films about war go, Return is slight. This is not a robust, lengthy saga that spans years and continents. It has nothing in it that will be remembered like the Russian roulette scene of The Deer Hunter. But that is a great deal of its point: how so much of the experience of war can’t be told.This, at least, is Kelli’s problem. She (played by Linda Cardellini) has just returned from over a year’s deployment in Iraq. Though she never saw combat, something in her has changed — but she can’t begin to say what.
As the film begins, we hear the noise of planes taking off and landing. Then we see the back of a woman’s head as she is carried up an escalator. At the top, this woman in military uniform glances around uncertainly, clearly ill at ease, until she is at once engulfed by her two young daughters and her husband (Michael Shannon). For a time, the camera follows the newly returned Kelli among her family and friends as if this were footage from a home movie. The green and sleepy landscape of a Rust Belt small town spreads out before Kelli as her husband drives the family home. We watch her face light with recognition at landmarks like Budget Muffler and Brake Center, the local Dairy Queen, a water tower, and ramshackle residential homes. Clearly, this is salt-of-the-earth America that Kelli is returning to. Her husband seems loving, her children seem sweet, and she is home, safe.
But the reality, of course, is more complicated than that. From the very beginning, we see moments of disconnect between Kelli and her family and friends. Her face closes off when her friends chatter on about the mundane scuttlebutt of their lives. She doesn’t get why her husband and daughter like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. “Everything seems so small,” she says to a co-worker on her first day back at her old job at a supply warehouse.
Liza Johnson, who both wrote and directed the film, does an especially good job at conveying this disconnect by means of slightly off-center shots of Kelli’s reclaimed domestic life, as well as the repetitive piece-work and loading and unloading that she does at the largely empty factory where she works. There, she seems almost too robust, too quick, in the slow and quiet factory where there doesn’t seem to be any particular hurry. And after a few days back, Kelli doesn’t see the purpose, either.
When she quits her job, stalking out of a warehouse full of giant rolls of bubble wrap, she can’t give her longtime boss any explanation. He in fact demands one, but she can only shake her head dumbly, her car-door already open.
“I don’t really have a story for you,” she tells the AA counselor who suggests she talk through what she’s seen during her deployment. She’s been labeled an alcoholic following a minor car accident on the night that the discovery of her husband’s infidelity leads her to a bout of drinking. Here, again, is a way of labeling or neatly explaining that doesn’t quite work. Kelli is by no means an alcoholic. But the people around her seem to be so steeped in “Jerry Springer”, as Kelli puts it, that they insist on anticipating what she must be going through, absurdly confident that they’ve been well instructed in how to deal with her. Kelli’s problem, though, is that her experience at a base hospital in Iraq has left her with no coherent, neatly packaged story to tell.
Linda Cardellini is well cast as Kelli. Well over a decade after playing a sweetly misfit teenager in TV’s Freaks and Geeks, Cardellini is suited to playing this older version of a character who is no longer at home in familiar surroundings. We feel a pang at seeing the youthful vibrancy of Cardellini’s Kelli at times clouded by age. It’s not necessarily that she’s wiser; she’s just seen more, and she can’t forget.
Bud, the grizzled veteran at her AA meetings (played with sad sack charisma by Mad Men’s John Slattery) seems at first to offer her a kind of understanding and refuge in his cabin in the woods — as if there might be another way after all. They don’t tell each other their war stories so much as acknowledge what they don’t have to tell each other. Unfortunately, Bud ultimately shows Kelli only a deeper world of alienation.
There’s an odd moment when Kelli’s former boss asks her to find a place for the pigeons in a coop out back. We watch as the birds first fly from her clumsy gloved hands until finally, one by one, she packs them into wooden boxes that are carted off in a van. There’s the double edge of the title’s return again — where it doesn’t, finally, mean going home. It just means going back.
The film’s silence (there is no musical score) underscores the sharpness in the air that Ann Etheridge’s cinematography has captured in the deep blue skies and changing leaves of the small town whose unpeopled streets Kelli walks through. Like everyone else in the film, we never see or know what Kelli has seen; we see only how disconnected she now is.
Perhaps the strength of this, Johnson’s first feature-length film, is that it manages to convey its sobering truth by means of the same silence that its heroine can’t break.
Five (wisely) deleted scenes suggest Johnson’s approach to fleshing out Kelli’s character through small moments in her life now. Suffice it to say that the scenes that made it into the film do that work much more effectively.
The director/cinematographer commentary introduces long-time creative partners Liza Johnson and Ann Etheridge. As these things go, their comfortable chatter is fairly typical. They discuss shooting logistics and chronology, as well as the various dynamics between cast members. Johnson’s side note about the importance of place in this film is very much in accord with what we see. As it turns out, her own childhood in the Rust Belt of the country, where the film is set, informed their eventual choice of location.