Following the recent influx of anti-war films with a more inwardly-looking perspective, Liza Johnson’s debut feature Return (2011) stars Linda Cardellini as a female soldier unable to reintegrate into society after the horrors she witnessed in Afghanistan, alongside Michael Shannon and John Slattery.
On returning from a military tour of duty, Kelli (Cardellini) is excited to return to Ohio and once again embrace her husband (Shannon) and two young daughters. She’s reluctant to discuss her experiences abroad but it’s clear for all to see that she’s returned a different woman than the one who left – despite her instance that “nothing happened out there” and “a lot of other people had it worse than me” – a mantra she religiously recites each time she’s broached about the subject.
Bottling up her emotions soon begins to take its toll on her personal life, with her patient husband quickly becoming jaded with her detached mood and emotionally distant behaviour. This disenfranchisement with life back on American soil soon spreads, having a detrimental effect on both her job and friendships – eventually leaving her with nothing but the memories which haunt her.
Return is notable for its unique decision to switch the gender roles normally associated with the genre. You could easy swap Shannon’s and Cardellini’s roles and there would be little need to modify the film’s script dramatically. This role reversal is achieved thanks primarily to Cardellini, whose performance is earth shatteringly poignant – full of emotional depth and perfect for such an empowered, almost masculine role. Sadly, Shannon perhaps isn’t given the same opportunity to shine – a major misstep, especially as the encounters between this fragile husband and wife dynamic are by far the most engrossing element of the film.
Return perfectly captures the mood of its recession hit American setting, with every boarded up shop and restaurant Kelli passes a constant reminder of how far away from the American dream her life has become. However, the problem with the film is its inability to connect with the audience despite a strong emotional performance from its lead actor. Whilst Born on the Fourth of July (1989) managed to engage viewers into the issue of soldiers being unable to settle back into their previous lives, the recent war on terror has thus far failed to reciprocate these sentiments.
Return’s detached mood and lack of any discernible emotional connection to the film’s central characters is further hindered by a sloppy and disjointed script. Failing to elaborate on some of the film’s most important narrative twists, Johnson’s decision to focus so heavily on Kelli’s experiences leaves too many unanswered questions for the audience to fully grasp the magnitude of her dilemma. Whilst admittedly showcasing a powerhouse performance by Cardellini, Return sadly fails to convey its heart-rending story of the psychological and domestic damages war can cause.