Directed by Liza Johnson
Going back to her perfect turn on TV's Freaks and Geeks, Linda Cardellini has always possessed a great discontented face—confusion and discomfort float across it with heartbreaking ease. Since that show's much (and correctly) lamented demise, she moved on to NBC stablemate ER, and did fine supporting work in Brokeback Mountain, among others. In Return, she has her first-ever starring movie role as Kelli, a National Guard soldier returning to her Rust Belt home and family after time in Iraq. She tackles ennui not dissimilar to brainy Michigan resident Lindsay Weir, but written across an adult landscape of dead-end jobs, a family that needs support, and feeling trapped in a dying hometown.
Writer-director Liza Johnson never shows us Kelli overseas, and she reports no heroism from the front: she mostly just loaded supplies, saw some dead bodies, never got injured herself. "A lot of people had it a lot worse," she says, repeatedly, as family and friends prod her to talk more about what went on over there. Everyone from her patient-ish husband Mike (Michael Shannon) to friends to counselors wants to talk about her trauma; Kelli never verbalizes it, but the movie implies that the war, while hellish, at least had an objective and a potential endpoint; her life on Ohio, meanwhile, carried on without her, and resuming it seems more than a little pointless.
The movie follows her attempt to rejoin the world: happy if slightly uneasy at first, later depressed and angry, causing a rift in her marriage and her ability to spend time with her two young daughters. Cardellini generates natural empathy and if it's bit of a shock at first to see Shannon playing the loving, helpless spouse, rather than the listless, acting-out soldier, that surprise only makes Mike more disarmingly likable. But some of the story's turns, particularly how it deals with Mike's feelings and actions, feel a little abrupt, more script-driven than fully felt. To a degree, Johnson is following the Amerindie playbook: character sketching, short-story plotting, some handheld shooting, and an open ending. As a war story, though, Return feels fresh for its pointed lack of battlefield revelations. Johnson makes Ohio look lovely and warm, even in the shots of shuttered storefronts, and often highlights Cardellini on the landscapes by dressing her in emergency reds. At its quiet, evocative best, Return watches Kelli's face as she tries to make sense of the world around her.
Opens February 10