After spending years in a horrible place, Judge Clark Douglas is still struggling to adjust to a low-carb diet.
"Look…if you did something over there…"
On quite a few occasions over the years, filmmakers have devoted their time to examining the psychological aftershocks of war. From The Best Years of Our Lives and The Deer Hunter, to Coming Home, Stop-Loss, and Brothers, we've seen countless portraits of just how difficult it can be for a veteran to return to civilian life. Liza Johnson's Return seeks to mine this complex, sobering territory once again. Admittedly, it brings some new elements to the table: a female lead and a generally less melodramatic tone than many films exploring similar subject matter. This is a well-crafted endeavor, but is there enough distinctive material to make the film an essential watch? I'm not sure.
Return tells the story of Kelli (Linda Cardinelli, Freaks and Geeks), who has just returned from a tour of duty. She's happy to be back home with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) and two young daughters—or at least it seems that way. After a while, it becomes apparent there's a lot of turbulence underneath Kelli's seemingly calm exterior. As her personal life quickly takes a nosedive, we watch and wonder whether she can find any way to fix things before too much damage has been done.
The strongest aspect of Return is its quietly observational nature. There's a lot of power in tiny, telling moments, such as when Kelli finds herself completely uninvolved by the juvenile America's Funniest Home Videos-style program being enjoyed by her husband and daughter. There are sharp, startling moments, when Kelli's quiet despair turns into active self-destruction, but those moments are foreshadowed with subtle intelligence during the film's early passages. Later, observe how much is said indirectly during the final-reel sequence in which Kelli takes a road trip with her daughters. So many little touches that say so much.
There's no doubt Return is quite good at doing what it sets out to do, but it rarely delivers anything that feels particularly revelatory or fresh along the way. No matter how subtly she says it, there's no getting around the fact that Johnson is basically getting at the same old idea: war leaves a mark (even for someone like Kelli, who frequently insists that she didn't have it as bad as a lot of people over there—which is true, but does nothing to dampen the trauma she's experienced), recovery can be immensely challenging, and people who haven't been there simply can't understand (an element explored via a subplot featuring a drug-addled Vietnam vet played by Mad Men's John Slattery).
Still, it's a laudable character study and solid demonstration of Cardinelli's unique talents. She does a lot with very little in this role, as her face tends to be largely unexpressive and her dialogue comprised of half-formed statements which probably sounded better in her head. It's a tricky role, but Cardinelli makes it look easy. Michael Shannon is tender and effective as the husband, but it's certainly not a role which takes advantage of his immense talents (though it does permit him to play a character who is both stable and warm, which can't be said of many of his other roles). Slattery handles his small but crucial role with aplomb, incorporating traces of Roger Sterling's quick wit into a persuasively grizzled blue collar persona.
E1's standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid, offering sturdy detail and depth throughout. The cinematography is simple and naturalistic; there's nothing particularly showy about Johnson's approach to the material on a visual level. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is also sturdy—the opening sequence might sound poorly-mixed, as the dialogue can barely be heard over the sound design, but this seems to be intentional. Elsewhere, dialogue is mostly clean and clear. Bonus features include a commentary with Johnson and cinematographer Anne Etheridge, and a batch of deleted scenes.
Again, it's tricky to determine whether or not to recommend Return to the average viewer. The movie certainly accomplishes its goals with quiet skill, but also feels a little unnecessary. Still, it's nice to see A) Linda Cardinelli being given such a substantial role, B) an exploration of a familiar themes from a female point-of-view, C) Michael Shannon getting a chance to play against type, and D) another young director with a good deal of potential. If you're interested in the subject matter or the individuals involved, give it a shot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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