Return is the debut film from writer and director Liza Johnson. The film follows a female soldier, Kelli (Linda Cardellini), who after returning from war in the Middle East, struggles to settle back into her old life. Although initially thrilled to be reunited with her husband, Mike (Michael Shannon), her two little girls, and her friends, life at home slowly begins to appear hollow and pointless. She quits her job, one she had held for a long time before the war, suddenly and without explanation. Instead of finding new work, she wastes months on the couch in her pajamas, watching soap operas and dabbling in telemarketing. She is forgetful and despondent, and suspects her husband is cheating on her. Kelli has fabricated this entire affair, but provokes him until he is eventually forced to leave. Because she is so wrapped up in her own thoughts and feelings, Kelli constantly neglects the people around her emotionally.
This cycle plays out again and again throughout Return, as Kelli acts without considering the ramifications or the consequences of what she’s doing. Instead, she has to deal with her feelings of isolation and redundancy now that she’s been reinserted into a world that was operating fine without her. She projects these feelings onto the reality of her new life at home, and then through her behavior, forces those around her to validate her perception of herself as an outsider and an underdog.
Throughout the film, Kelli insists that nothing happened to her while she was in the Middle East, and that others had it much worse. She repeats this story dozens of times to friends, family and strangers even as they plead with her to open up about the horrors she’s seen in war. Despite her protestations, Kelli is obviously attempting to cope with something through heavy drinking, and Johnson’s film suggests that it is not war alone that has changed and traumatized this woman, but rather a combination of her transition home, the fact that life has continued to go on without her and that she has lost her place in it.
Return is an unexpected coming home film. It is not melodramatic or brutal and traumatizing, but quiet, psychological and subtle. The drama is completely internalized within Kelli, and the viewer is only permitted to view the ways in which this inner struggle manifests itself in the destruction she creates around her. Because so much of the film’s story and drama are created in the mind of Kelli, at times the motives and actions of the characters can seem forced and confusing, but solid acting from a great cast carries the film forward. As a result, Return is a cerebral, thought-provoking film that gives a fresh point of view to a well-worn story.
Director: Liza Johnson
Writer: Liza Johnson
Starring: Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery
Release Date: Feb. 10, 2012 (limited)