DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
RETURN (director/writer: Liza Johnson; cinematographer: Anne Etheridge; editor: Paul Zucker; music: T. Griffin; cast: Linda Cardellini (Kelli), Michael Shannon (Mike), John Slattery (Bud), Talia Balsam (Julie), Bonnie Swencionis (Cara Lee), Emma Rayne Lyle (Jackie), Paul Sparks (Ed); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Noah Harlan/Ben Howe/Ms. Johnson; Dada Films; 2011)

"It's a well-made but grim psychological melodrama."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

The debut feature of Williams College professor Liza Johnson has too many dull spots and wrong twists to overcome. It fails to be either a ground-breaking, entertaining or educational film, but that's not to say it's a bad film. The indie film is an earnest attempt to say something scintillating about a female soldier's Middle East deployment and return to her home town, where she suffers from a severe case of dislocation and an inability to talk about it. It's a well-made but grim psychological melodrama telling of National Guard soldier Kelli (Linda Cardellini) returning from her duty on a supply detail to her economically depressed small town Rust Belt community after serving a tour of duty in an unnamed  war zone (probably Iraq, even if not said) and soon finds she can't adjust to civilian life. When friends or family or strangers ask about her mission, she only retorts “A lot of people had it worse than I did.”  No catharsis over a confessional here!

Initially happy to be home in Ohio and drinking a beer and sitting in her own chair in her modest home, Kelli soon discovers she's not happy to be home because of all the following reasons: her struggling plumber hubby Mike (Michael Shannon) doesn't understand her mood swings and leaves her with a cold feeling after she discovers that he had an affair with the attractive desk service worker in a car showroom, Cara Lee (Bonnie Swencionis), that is ongoing; that she suddenly can't stand her old ventilator factory job that the amenable boss saved for her and on an impulse quits, but can't find a suitable alternative job; that she's inattentive to the demands of her two young daughters that she loves, even forgetting to pick one daughter up after school causing her to walk home alone through an unsafe park; that she can't talk to her girlfriends as she did before, because there's a disconnect; has a drinking problem that gets her a DUI and suspension of her driver's license for six months, and while forced to attend AA meetings under a court-mandate she finds she can only communicate with a withdrawn acerbic senior citizen dropout Vietnam vet (John Slattery) who has a romantic interest in her (the film takes a wrong turn by introducing an artificial plot device to force-feed its erroneous argument that only another psychologically messed-up soldier can understand what she's going through); and, that she now sees herself as an outsider with the only solution for her survival being another unrewarding deployment to a fractured Iraq, while finding her own family is also fractured.

Linda Cardellini gives a convincing subdued performance as the sullen but likable Middle American working-class gal who is so confused and bottled up she can't communicate to civilians how she feels and what she's going through. The country is in a mess and the film's heroine is in a state of depression, as the unfocused Kelli drifts through an untenable civilian situation and is engaged in another mission to a war zone where there's no possibility of a victory only the hope of surviving. What isn't said but is implied, is that everything seems hopeless because the bad war has sucked the energy and money out of the country. The other thing to note that goes unstated, is that the working-class types fighting this war are doing the best they can but are getting no help from the government in how to deal with returning home after their mission in a war zone leaves them as damaged goods, even if not personally touched by tragedy (I'm not sure this is exactly true, because there is now in place a mandated mental health screening program of all returning vets--the only problem is that these war-related mental disorders are difficult to locate and the soldiers are ofter reluctant to mention their problems because there's a stigma attached to being labeled with a psychological disorder. What results is a film that wants to say a lot by saying so little, but only manages to translate the obvious (ground already covered by films such as The Hurt Locker) as it rehashes the familiar horror war stories with conviction and plausibility, but without leaving much of an impact. 

REVIEWED ON 3/16/2012       GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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