Return tells a story you already know. There’s no way around that. Every single war has had at least one movie made about it where a soldier returns from the front and has trouble readjusting to normal life, often with disastrous results. I’m sure there’s a movie out there about a World War II private who did nothing but nail attractive British girls and eat sausages coming home to his supermodel wife and massive family fortune and being shell-shocked about it. There’s not necessarily something special or unique, in this regard, about Return, a story about a soldier (Linda Cardellini) returning home and having a tough time returning to civilian life.
What matters, as usual, are the performances and the things the film does to set itself apart from the decades of similar films. Return does a lot right, largely personified by a subtly-powerful performance from Linda Cardellini, but it also has its share of missteps along the way.
Director: Liza Johnson
Release Date: February 3rd
In terms of plot, you’re not going to find too many big twists and turns with Return. As Kelli, our protagonist, tries to settle back into a normal life, it’s become pretty clear that she can’t, that something has radically changed for her. Again, you’ve seen this all before. She drifts from situation to situation, never quite being able to find that normal groove. There’s problems with her husband (the always wonderful Michael Shannon), with her kids, with her job, and with pretty much everything else. Kelli’s story isn’t original, but it’s nevertheless resonant. It speaks to the guilt we all have for the poor kids that go off to fight in our wars but come back changed people. These stories feature characters that have gone through events we can’t really imagine.
Most stories, I’d imagine, are much like Kelli’s, who constantly tells anyone that asks that “a lot of people had it a lot worse off than [she] did.” This is easily the strongest, most interesting thing going on in the movie, narratively and thematically speaking. It recognizes, to use a cliché, that war is, in fact, hell, but it’s never necessarily hell in the way that you’d expect. For everyone that’s up to their eyes in dead people and facing horrible choices in the name of duty, there’s someone that spent the entire war at an out-of-the-way supply depot or behind a desk, never firing their weapons at anything not made of paper. Those folks, like Kelli, can have just as difficult a time readjusting to life back home as the person who had to live through an atrocity at your Fallujahs or your Khe Sahns or your Dresdens.
It all comes together through Linda Cardellini’s performance. Her pain is a quiet, interior pain, something she almost feels ashamed to share with anybody, even her husband. She accomplishes to much with a pained look, a pause in the right place, looking away at just the right moment. It’s such a shame she hasn’t been given opportunities like this one more often. She’s an actress that’s capable of greatness, and this movie is evidence. The material she has to work with is fairly limited, but she still pulls off an Oscar-caliber performance that will most likely be forgotten by this time next year. The rest of the ensemble pales by comparison, even with the presence of Michael Shannon, an actor that is utterly incapable of half-assing something. As husband Mike, he’s got a tough role to play, as his actions lead him from the clueless husband to something like an antagonist nearly immediately, but he does this with the talent and the gravitas he brings to everything. John Slattery, of Mad Men fame, makes a brief performance as another vet Kelli finds a bit of common ground with, but he’s inevitably forgettable.
Return fills the hard-to-quantify role of a middling film with a command performance at the center, elevating it to a point it could never have reached with a lesser actor or actress. I’d highly recommend it, as Linda Cardellini’s performance alone is worth your fifteen bucks, especially if you only know her from Freaks and Geeks or, God forbid, ER. It’s something to enjoy for the thrill of a truly moving performance, rather than a challenging, original story, but sometimes that’s OK.