Despite its flaws, Liza Johnson’s debut ‘Return’ is a promising start for film depictions of our recent wars
Few great films are made about a war while the fighting is still going on.
This is partly a problem of timing: most wars don't last long enough for Hollywood to catch up. The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now came years after the fall of Saigon; the first great World War II film, The Best Years of Our Lives, didn't appear until 1946, a year after the fighting had ceased. Movies with glancing or analogous relations to contemporaneous conflicts, like Casablanca or "M.A.S.H.," are the rare exceptions.
In this, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been little different. The best films, or at least the most revealing ones about how Americans have actually thought about the fighting, are, to my mind, Iron Man, Transformers II, and The Dark Knight. The worst: The Hurt Locker, Home of the Brave, and In the Valley of Elah. While Hollywood has tried harder than ever to come to terms with the fighting, the inability to gain some distance on the conflicts—since the wars have lasted so long—or, to take a less charitable view, the current degradation of the film industry, has made the results rather dismal.
Director Liza Johnson's debut film, Return, the only American selection at the Director's Fortnight at Cannes last year, also appears to be the first film about the "war on terror" to come out after the end of its most significant conflict, the Iraq War. As such, it's a promising if somewhat flawed sign of what may be to come in film depictions of the conflicts of the past decade.
The basic premise is straightforward. Kelli (Linda Cardellini, all grown up since "Freaks and Geeks") returns from a tour of duty, which she seems to have spent mostly unloading boxes in an Army warehouse. Her problem, now that she's back home in post-industrial Ohio, isn't so much that she can't talk about the horrors she's seen as it is that her Oprah-indoctrinated friends won't stop pushing her to spill her guts. (Meredith Vieira, who co-produced Return, thus pays some small penance for the past 15 years of trauma-porn inflicted by her more famous cultural product, "The View.")
Johnson, who also wrote the film, thankfully doesn't indulge in any overdramatized flashbacks to Kelli's experiences overseas. Her traumas—and, indeed, whether or not she even experienced any—remain as distant from the audience as from the other characters on screen.
"Yeah, I saw some weird shit there," she tells a friend who insists on talking about the war after a night of drinking. "But mostly I saw a mountain of supplies."
Kelli's husband (Michael Shannon, taking a break from "Boardwalk Empire"), appears to be a model of the 21st-century "army wife," carefully watching over their two young daughters, keeping the home in top shape while she's away, and checking in week after week at the spousal support group. But his insistence that Kelli come clean about her wartime experiences ends up being a cover for his own homefront indiscretions. The drama takes place between his shouts of "What the fuck happened to you?" her reply, "Nothing, that's what happened," and the slow revelation of his own philandering as she tries to go back to her old gig at a small-time Midwestern factory.
It's a neat set-up, and one that takes courage to follow through on. But Johnson has maybe even too much nerve—she's so insistent on her main character's right not to talk about what happened that Cardellini, instead of playing Kelli as someone inscrutable who we, too, want to know more about, comes off as so much of a cipher that the emotional center of the movie at times disappears entirely.
Cardellini appears in practically every shot in the movie. While at first she delivers a moving, precise depiction of her character, with her sympathetic looks aptly substituting for the absence of motivation in her actions, she can't carry the entire film. And the continually moving camera, which tracks her every gesture, often in extreme close-up, makes the moments in which Cardellini appears lost, whether at home with her children or relating to her friends, appear totally wooden rather than blankly suggestive.
This is not to mention the real flubs in Return: the least subtle meeting between adulteress and wronged-wife in the history of the movies; a massive plot hole in the unexplained absence of Kelli's parents, who might be expected to, say, visit their 30-something daughter when she comes back from a war, and perhaps take an interest in her psychological decline; and the simply bizarre idea that a husband, while openly committing adultery against a wife who has spent the past year serving her country abroad, could somehow gain custody of their children with no public outcry.
But there's plenty to like amid the missteps, especially the great John Slattery, who takes a brief turn as a Vietnam veteran gone to seed. He hits on Kelli with about as much subtlety as the Roger Sterling character he plays on "Mad Men," but nonetheless makes the most insightful observation in the movie—telling Kelli that, if most people were assholes when he came back from Vietnam in the 1970s, at least they didn't pretend they could understand what he had been through by constantly asking him what had happened.
Return is a promising debut from a first-time director, far superior to the false moves most other filmmakers have been serving up about the longest wars in this nation's history. With the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, one can only hope that we'll see even better films from Johnson, and others, before long.