Director: Liza Johnson
Runtime: 97 minutes
Linda Cardellini's performance in Liza Johnson's Return immediately reminded me of Marion Cotillard's work in Rust and Bone. Not because the roles have a great deal in common (though there is some shared thematic territory), but because both performances involve the actresses making the most of relatively thin material. Cardellini's work, however, is stuck in a film that, despite its maturity, never achieves anything noteworthy. Return is a film of purposefully modest ambitions, yet one can't help but feel that perhaps Johnson should have opened the film's character's up more to provide more to latch onto and understand. The old saying tells us that less is more, but in this case, having "less" ends up working against the film and its strong central performance.
Return's story is simple, yet ripe with potential. Army soldier Kelli (Cardellini) returns home from a tour of duty, and must readjust to life at home, even as the people she knows have changed. Kelli's husband Mike (Michael Shannon) tries to keep things normal, but as Kelli reconnects with neighbors and co-workers, she learns some unpleasant truths. Had it been more successful, the piece would make a nice companion film to The Hurt Locker (which only briefly showcases the stagnation that the real world presents to returning soldiers).
What drags the film down, unfortunately, is a somewhat dry narrative. The script tries to balance scenes that illustrate Kelli's discomfort with her old life, while also informing us of who she was before her tour of duty. To her credit, Johnson stages the former incidents with an understated naturalism, never going overboard to beat us over the head with Kelli's alienation. Yet in trying to establish who Kelli was, Johnson flounders a bit with the execution by presenting too little to understand or draw our own conclusions.
Thankfully, Cardellini is front and center the entire way through, which helps the film even in its thinnest moments. Skilled at both comedy and drama, this is perhaps the biggest showcase the actress has had to carry entirely on her own, and she does it with aplomb. She makes the most of Kelli's journey, even when Johnson's script gives her little more to work with than being blank and uncomfortable. This is not a performance of big moments, but Cardellini makes the more prominent flashes of emotion register with graceful restraint. Her relationships with her husband, and especially with her two young daughters carry a beautiful authenticity that is never made overbearing or cloying.
Ultimately, Return works best when it moves its character study elements into more interesting situations. Watching Kelli sit around on the couch in a stupor isn't nearly as interesting or insightful as her interactions with her AA group later on. The problem is that Johnson takes too long to move her protagonist into the more dynamic parts of the limited plot, thereby undercutting the power of the finale. The uncertainty about how to address the war (and Kelli's involvement, to a lesser extent) mitigates investment in Kelli's story, despite Cardellini's strong work, and the maturity of the writing. As character pieces go, Return certainly touches on an important subject matter, but it's altogether too slight and too cautious to achieve any sort of impact outside of its central performance.