Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Liza Johnson's RETURN: a quiet, slow-burning, post-war movie that pays off

We've seen the subject of RETURN -- veterans of our current follies in Iraq and Afghanistan coming back to post-war life in America -- handled a number of times previously, usually in documen-tary form and dealing, as most war and post-war movies do, with men rather than women. This new film from first-time, full-length writer/director Liza Johnson focuses on a woman solider, Kelli, played with expanding ferment and confusion by a very good Linda Cardelini, who returns home to job, husband and family -- to discover that everything has changed because she has changed, in ways that she can't understand, explain or even do much about.

This last point is the key to understanding and appreciating Return, TrustMovies believes, and it is to the credit of filmmaker Johnson, shown at right, that she never pushes this view down our throats. We have to come to it slowly, as we watch the story unfold and the character of Kelli disintegrate. Why is this happening? No definitive explanation is given but it becomes clear that some sort of post-traumatic stress is taking its toll. From so much that Americans have already been told about these current wars and their effect on returning vets, we know that PST exhibits itself in varied ways. When gender is included in the mix, the variation is even greater, I should think.

Last year, as part of the excellent festival of new British independent films brought to the USA by Emerging Pictures, one of the films, In Our Name (click and scroll down), dealt with the PTS melt-down of a young wife and mother (Joanne Froggatt, above, right, of Downton Abbey) who comes back from the same war, in which Britian, as one of the Coalition of the Willing, stupidly served. This film, harder-hitting but a bit more melodramatic, makes a most interesting Brit version of Return -- in which a problematic husband, alcohol, a bad economy and PTS join forces in a destructive spiral.

What makes Return as special as it is, is the commendable performance from Ms Cardellini (above) that never begs for sympathy, coupled to the restraint that filmmaker Johnson shows in refusing to enumerate the inner problems Kelli experiences. Instead, both give us sidelong glances as the problems crop up: having trouble coupling to and with her husband (Michael Shannon, shown below, who's good here, as usual, but in a less large and showy role), adjusting to what now seems like pointless manual labor at her employment, and simply feeling lost in all the "real" life all around her.

As the movie proceeds, we slowly derive an understanding of what it must be like for these returnees, who come back to us changed in ways that they cannot fathom, and that only slowly emerge. What to do? Group therapy, as shown here, cannot begin to help. John Slattery (below), of Mad Men, appears briefly as a member of the support group who reaches out a drug-filled helping-hand to co-member Kelli. "What happened over there?" Kelli is asked several times during the course of the film. "I had it better than most" is the only "explanation" she is able to muster.

What we're left with is genuinely, rightfully, hugely depressing: the walking wounded coming back to a society that doesn't want them and pretends that they're either OK or not there, ignoring them to its peril. In past wars cannon fodder knew enough to die and feed the worms. In our new wars, they return to haunt us in perpetuity, enacting a kind of self- and societal-destruction that is perhaps as inevitable as it is unjust. (Our leaders are the ones who should be suffering; as ever, they simply grow more wealthy.)

Return is a wake-up call, to be sure. And as usual with any film that has to do with our current wartime situation, it is just as sure to be ignored. (After all, we have to have our big, costly parade for real heroes like the Super Bowl-winning NY Giants.) In any case, the film opens this Friday, February 10, here in New York City at the Village East Cinema, at IndieScreen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and at the Downing Film Center in Newburgh, New York; in the Los Angeles area, it opens, same date, at the Laemmle Monica 4-PlexClick here for further upcoming playdates and venues.

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