By Marian Masone
Liza Johnson’s feature film, Return, which premiered in Cannes last spring, has finally made its way to screens in New York. The film addresses a number of current social issues, all in one finely tuned narrative.
It could be viewed simply as the story of a soldier’s return from war, but writer-director Johnson, a Boerum Hill resident, has given us a female protagonist and presents some challenges that are unique to a woman veteran. The scourge of drugs is also on view, as well as the economic crisis that has dragged the country into recession.
Linda Cardellini (“E.R.”) is Kelli, newly returned from a stint in the military. Was she in Iraq or Afghanistan? It doesn’t matter which; time in either country carries the same emotional weight. She comes back to a pretty family — husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and two young daughters.
All seems to go well, as neighbors gather for a welcome-home party and Kelli spends her first night in the comfortable embrace of Mike and the kids, but soon things begin to unravel — subtly, and then not so subtly. Conversations over drinks with girlfriends seem useless to her and she is not quite in step with the rest of the family — they’re watching TV, while she wants to repaint the walls. Back at her old job (doing some kind of small factory assembly work), Kelli just up and quits, but she can’t even tell her boss why.
“She’s just upset,” her coworker says, and that may be as good a reason as any. She smiles, gets in her car and drives away. Drinking to excess, she discovers that her husband has been shacking up with someone in her absence, and after a fender-bender, she has her license suspended and is sent for a bit of group therapy that seems like in-and-out rehab.
There she meets Bud (John Slattery, of “Mad Men” fame), whose addiction to prescription drugs gives her a snapshot of how far she could fall.
All of the main characters are beautifully drawn. Linda Cardellini’s Kelli is touching as a woman trying to fit back into her pre-deployment life. Her biggest challenge is getting in sync with her children. Cardellini fully expresses Kelli’s delight at seeing her girls growing up, going to school and playing with friends while at the same time showing her fear that she can’t quite connect with them anymore. When Kelli finds out that she’s to be redeployed, she tries to get out of it, first by trying to get knocked up — by anybody — then by taking her girls and going away. Cardellini plays this without melodrama, in a matter-of-fact way, so that we only grasp what she is doing slowly, which gives it much more emotional impact. And to see the relationship between husband and wife slowly deteriorate powerfully reflects how many marriages can fall apart.
Return exposes the country’s economic depression in the first scenes and all the way through the film. As Mike drives Kelli home from the airport, closed stores and gas stations live side by side with warehouse stores, which seem to be the only kind of shopping possibility in this Rust Belt town. Johnson makes it clear from the start that the landscape is a character in this film.
There are constant reminders of this throughout: When Kelli’s license is suspended, she is forced to walk home (something we New Yorkers may not find difficult, but we know it’s a different situation in the setting of the film). Johnson shoots her walking past yet another closed store. It is another reminder of the unrelenting march of a bad economy, and bad breaks for Kelli.
Also critical to this landscape, though only in a “supporting” role, is the drug crisis in Middle America. We’ve all seen the ads from a few years back showing that problems with drugs aren’t just an urban problem. Johnson, who grew up in Ohio, wants to remind us that the drug crisis still exists, that it exists in the “heartland,” and that — with the economy falling out from under us and wars still raging that take men and women away from their families and communities — we’ve got conflicts raging right here that are a long way from being solved.
In the end, the film is about Kelli, and how she maneuvers — or fails to maneuver — the land mines at home. And while Kelli is not every female veteran, there’s no denying that the problems haunting her haunt many others just like her.
Marian Masone programs films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and is on the selection committee for New Directors/New Films, presented by the Film Society and MoMA. She is also on the board of directors of Women Make Movies and a member of the film preservation committee of New York Women in Film and Television.