Linda Cardellini is onscreen for nearly every second of this mostly somber character study about a National Guard soldier readjusting to civilian life after serving in some unspecified overseas hell. Newly returned to middle-class suburbia, the unglamorous and disoriented young mother Kelli has trouble reconnecting with husband Mike (Michael Shannon), dislikes being asked to share stories about how bad it was “over there” and can’t tolerate her mindlessly repetitive job.
Cardellini is excellent at conveying Kelli’s zombie-like detachment from normal everyday concerns without ever seeming boring. No longer able to appreciate small pleasures like a TV show that cracks up hubby and her pre-teen daughter, Kelli realizes that they and her young toddler have adapted just fine to her absence. Feeling irrelevant, redundant and a little resented, Kelli doesn’t need a friend to point out that things never stay the same as they were before. “I guess he got real used to me being gone,” she emotionlessly admits about her distant spouse.
What’s refreshing about director/writer Liza Johnson’s screenplay is that it avoids histrionic big-moment melodrama. When Kelli discovers that Mike has been having an affair with Cara Lee (Bonnie Swencionis), a busty redhead who works at a local car dealer, her confrontations with the guilty parties don’t involve hysterical crying jags, physical abuse or breaking things. There’s also never a psychological “big reveal” that conveniently would explain why Kelli has so much trouble readjusting to her former life. The idea that her military experience as a whole is to blame for her mental state is more hauntingly effective than blaming her behavior on a specific traumatic incident.
Similarly, Kelli’s whirlwind relationship with a fellow former vet named Bud (John Slattery) has two unexpected aspects, one tragically sad and the other brutally rational, but both seem entirely plausible.
Politics-wise, the movie should be seen by any American who still thinks enlisting in the National Guard will mean assisting with natural disaster relief projects in the United States, as opposed to being sent wherever the US decides to declare war. Kelli mentions that she signed up for college benefits and because she thought she would be helping tornado victims. Current real-world radio ads for the Guard include only non-military scenarios about rescuing people trapped in storm cellars or putting out wildfires, never mentioning the possibility of recruits spending months or years under fire on the other side of the world.
The movie also paints a grim but credible portrait of lower-middle-class America, where suburban streets are full of vacant businesses, a returning vet settles for a telemarketing job pitching carpet cleaning, oxycontin kills pain that’s more than physical and having a suspended license doesn’t keep anyone from driving who still has places where they need to be.
The plot takes an entirely believable shift in the movie’s second half that makes a grim story seem even more hopeless. While that means Return will be nobody’s idea of a feel-good popcorn movie, this low-key slice of life has an unfortunate ring of truth that’s hard to deny.
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
Return is in theatres on Friday February 10, 2012. UK release is April 6, 2012