Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks fame delivers a blistering portrayal of a former military officer grappling with the minutiae of her recently reinstated civilian existence in Liz Johnson’s debut feature Return, now available on DVD from Entertainment One. An uncompromising and often excruciating chronicle of the psychological repercussions of modern military engagement, Return refuses obstinately to offer solace or relief to its deeply wounded protagonist, making it a darkly intense, but ultimately rewarding character study.
Cardellini plays Kelli, a young military veteran returning home to her husband (Man of Steel's Michael Shannon) and two daughters following the end of an overseas tour of service. Attempting to readjust to her low-wage factory job and daily routine of parenthood and casual social interactions, Kelli finds herself unable to engage fully with the people around her, or to experience any sense of productive purpose or calm in her life. Driven by a combination of perplexed helplessness in the face of the inescapable changes that have occurred while she was away, and roiling unease triggered by unprocessed lingering combat anxiety, Kelli starts acting erratic, and her relationship with her husband becomes strained. As Kelli’s life slowly and irrevocably continues to fall apart, she sinks deeper into confusion and despair, struggling to cope with the disparity between the overwhelming demands and expectations of working class domesticity, and the taut, hair-trigger lifestyle to which she has learned to adapt.
Return is a remarkably enveloping and cohesive first feature, though its thematic focus and slow-burning storytelling may make it too intense for some viewers. Michael Shannon is amazing as usual, but Cardellini’s skittish vulnerability is what really sells it. The story development is harsh and unrelenting, and arguably one-dimensional at times, but the film’s detached treatment and Cardellini’s eschewal of showy melodramatics make it feel completely believable and relevant. The lack of overt political content, and the refusal to explain or comment on the specific nature of Kelli’s trauma is also a bold choice – though it doesn’t make a big deal out of taking a political stance, Return’s premise aligns it pretty clearly with social protest cinema, much of which has a tendency to become awkwardly bogged down by trite sentimentality and pat, didactic solutions.
E-One’s disc contains a commentary track with director Johnson and cinematographer Anne Etheridge, plus a reel of deleted scenes, mainly featuring excised bits of performance from Cardellini. Though its relentless pessimistic brutality is often uncomfortable, Return is a solid and emotionally devastating character portrait, as well as a subtly rendered indictment of American militarism and its destructive personal consequences.