Returning 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, is arrested for drunk driving. After Mike leaves her taking the kids, 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 career.
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.
Written and Directed by:
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 6th April 2012