A fine example of independent filmmaking, despite familiar subject matter
American filmmaker Liza Johnson is by no means the first to take a crack at the ‘soldier comes home from war’ story, and she certainly won’t be the last, but Return is a worthwhile addition to the genre. It’s a focused, unshowy character study, light on fireworks but full of authentic drama and featuring an impressive lead performance from former ER actress Linda Cardellini.
Johnson sets her film apart from comparable contemporary war dramas like Stop-Loss and, to a lesser extent, The Hurt Locker with several key factors, most obviously the reversal of typical gender roles: the returning soldier is Kelli (Cardellini), and her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) is the one whose newly-adapted domestic life with their daughter is shaken up by her return. The reversal continues through their respective jobs – she has the 9 to 5 breadwinner role, working as a machine operator at a local factory, while Mike’s work as a plumber is rooted in, and dependent on, their immediate community of neighbours and families.
Johnson is not interested in investigating the things Kelli has seen and done ‘over there’, but rather in observing her life now that she is back, studying the cracks that begin to appear in Kelli and Mike’s seemingly solid relationship, and uncovering the lengths that Kelli will go to in order to avoid another tour of duty. Cardellini’s committed performance is powerful; like a clenched fist of emotion threatening to strike at any moment, she dominates the film. In fact, Kelli is such Johnson’s focus that other significant characters feel somewhat underwritten, and co-stars Shannon and John Slattery are arguably underused as a result. Johnson is good at pulling evocative images from the domestic settings though, and overall Return is a fine example of solid independent filmmaking done right.
On selected release from Fri 6 April.