Liza Johnson’s feature film debut tackles a tough subject and comes through with a passing grade. There will be more from her in the future.The latest in a string of films featuring the subtle but crippling effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, “Return” showcases a breakthrough performance by Linda Cardellini. She had a small part in the multi-award winning cast of “Brokeback Mountain” but she carries the full weight of this film and she carries it well as Kelly, back from the war. This film is nothing if not studied.
The plot takes its time in developing the deeply injured emotions of Kelly, who worked as an army medic in a hospital not far from the action. Although we are told she never saw action, her days were filled with the shattered lives of soldiers maimed and crippled physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives.
The first thing we notice about Kelli is that she does not want to talk about anything that happened during her time overseas. She has buried her trauma very deep and bringing it back to the surface would be painful. Her PTSD is the same as what we understand to be PTSD in men. She feels guilty for having survived and wants to take it out on herself.
She tries to take some of the burden from those she saw in the hospital by suffering on their behalf. Apparently, she has been told, directly or indirectly, that to show pain or to divulge that she is in pain is an act of cowardice. She keeps repeating, “There were a lot of people who had it worse than me, a lot worse.”
Another priceless quote is something to the effect that “I wasn’t raped, assaulted, or bullied, like a lot of women. I had it good.” This offhand expression of the life of an Army woman lands with a weight that belies the throwaway nature of its delivery. It is too offhand and matter-of-fact to be anything but the plain truth. It is a great example of the understated power of the performances and screenplay in this movie.
Directed and written by emerging writer/director Liza Johnson 2010 (nominated for the Berlin Golden Bear for Best Short for her “In the Air (2009)), this film is a major breakthrough for her as well as lead Cardellini. Assuming a huge bulk of the responsibilities for the look and feel of the film, the director/writer and lead bet it all on their ability to get across a subtle message. They succeeded.
Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) plays Kelli’s beleaguered husband Mike and John Slattery (“Mad Men”) plays Vietnam War PTSD victim Bud. Mike is the husband who cannot understand what has happened to the woman who once was his lover. He is hurt and frustrated by Kelli’s unwillingness to expose what she has suffered in the military hospital.
She is making him an outsider just as she fights to keep the memories outside her head. Bud is a greying veteran who never received the care he needed to overcome his trauma, presumably from the Vietnam War. As such, he is the picture of what Kelli will be in forty years, a loner borderline alcoholic who has shut out the world while shutting in the painful memories.
Johnson kept both of these characters in the background through her screenplay and directing and the result is not good. Their lack of development hurts of overall impact of the film because they are the sounding board for Kelli’s anguish. Mike plays one role, the role of a man who does not get it. That is not an unrealistic portrayal of a husband, especially one confronted with the buried pain of PTSD.
However, there is no arc to his performance. He is in the dark from beginning to end. There is no comparison between the vibrant but deeply flawed character Slattery plays in “Mad Men” and the two dimensional stereotype his character becomes in this film.
Eve n considering the flaws this film is a success. Cardellini’s performance is well paced as she slowly comes to realize that nothing is the way she left it. She does a great job conveying the point of view of the victim of a severe emotional breakdown. The more she tries to pretend things are normal, the less normal her behavior becomes.
Finally, she is so weighted down and broken by her emotional baggage that she cannot relate even to her children. In the end, when she gets the letter informing her that her National Guard unit has been called to return to the war, she faces the decision of a lifetime.
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Directed and Written by: Liza Johnson
Starring: Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery
Release Date: February 10, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 Minutes