Return is a bargain-budget bore by writer-director Liza Johnson about a female soldier back from a tour of active duty in Iraq who cannot adjust to life at home. Better movies have been made about the subject of veterans trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives on a home front that has changed in their absence and moved on without them. I am thinking of the classic The Best Years of Our Lives, of course, but that was another kind of war, and the last one that made any universal sense. Recently, channeling Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones and Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Indifferent audiences stayed away in droves. They are almost certain to avoid Return as well. People just do not seem to be able to summon the proper compassion for people who fought in what many consider to be pointless wars created by the whims of politicians and the military without knowing why they went there in the first place.
Return stars Linda Cardellini as Kelli, a wife and mother of two children who enlisted voluntarily in the National Guard and now comes back to her dead-end life in a deadly Ohio town where very few people seem to care where she’s been or what she’s done. The blue-collar job she held for 12 years operating a stapling machine in a factory warehouse is understandably mundane and claustrophobic. Drinking tequila shots with her old girlfriends at a local bar feels like a waste of time. (All they want to know is if she made out with any hot guys in uniform.) Small talk and local gossip have the hollow ring of stupidity. She lacks the energy to take care of her children. Sex holds no interest and lovemaking in the conjugal bed lacks the drive it once had, especially after she learns that her husband, Mike (a wasted Michael Shannon, who has little to do besides stand around and look frustrated), had an affair with a girl from a car dealership while she was away. “You need to get a plan,” he says, after she quits her job and lies around the house watching television. Clearly, she is going nowhere and neither is the movie.
Others had it worse than she did. She saw dead bodies. But mostly she sorted boxes of supplies. So what is her problem? Being sluggish and exhausted or being unable to concentrate might be signs of deeper conflicts. She loves her kids and craves the peace of sipping a cold beer without stress, but small pleasures wear thin and post-traumatic stress disorder sets in fast. She tries working at home, selling carpet shampoo by phone, but taking a nap on the living room sofa takes precedence. She turns hostile, spends most of her time sleeping, and even leaves one of her daughters stranded in a dangerous neighborhood. Needless to say, her husband leaves her and moves the kids to his mother’s house. After she’s arrested while driving drunk and forced to attend a 12-step program to get her license back, she hooks up with another lost soul (John Slattery), a fellow veteran who lives in a shack with stolen electric lines and no plumbing. Half the time she mopes around in a daze, unable to cope. The rest of the time she sleeps around, trying to get pregnant, which is the only thing that will exempt her from being called back into action by her Guard unit. The miserable ending is inevitable.
Return tries to make a case for war as the root of all evil, and indicts all conflicts as an inescapable cause of irreversible psychological damage in the hearts and minds of people who fight wars in the first place. But time has proved there are no generalities. Just as many men return proud and sane and productive as those who turn to drugs and crime or end up in padded cells. And what, many ask, are responsible wives and mothers doing deserting their families and throwing their lives in harm’s way to begin with? Debating that touchy subject is a double-edged sword that isn’t about to be resolved in a movie as slow and one-dimensional as Return. Ms. Cardellini plays it like a zombie, and she isn’t helped by all the loitering camera angles and repetitive close-ups of her head framed against car windows. It’s a worthy subject, ploddingly explored in a film that is too modest for its own good.
Running Time 97 minutes
Written and Directed by Liza Johnson
Starring Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery