In Return, Kelli (Linda Cardellini) struggles to readjust to life in her dead-end Ohio town after serving in the National Guard in Iraq. Using a quasi-vérité, fly-on-the-wall approach — naturalistic performances, overheard dialogue, grainy handheld 16mm photography — the film’s early scenes succeed in capturing the telling details of this experience. Unfortunately, and paradoxically, Return’s attempts to pile dramatic developments on its beleaguered heroine turn a chronicle of mundanity and listlessness into a mundane, listless film.
Kelli finds that everything in her life now seems pointless, from the vacuous white noise of the television and radio to getting drunk with her friends to the warehouse job she has held for 12 years. Only her two young daughters bring her any pleasure, but her sense of dislocation causes at least one major parental snafu. The other characters, particularly her husband Mike (Michael Shannon), demonstrate not only a lack of sympathy, but also an unerring knack for dealing with her in precisely the wrong way at any given moment — by cajoling her to talk about her experience, challenging her to get over it, or pretending it never happened. Not until a DUI lands her in mandatory group counseling does she meet someone with whom she can communicate. Two people, actually — Talia Balsam as the first person who talks to her with understanding and honesty, and John Slattery as a fellow veteran and self-styled rugged individualist. But these connections provide only temporary relief from her problems.
Return aims to explore a world of inarticulate, inexpressive people but commits to this task with a glumness that renders it emotionally impenetrable and dramatically inert. A glacial pace doesn’t help — the film feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The performances, by an exceptionally strong cast for such a small film, can’t be blamed. And writer-director Liza Johnson gets the little things right, demonstrating an ear for natural-sounding dialogue and an eye for visual details like the skateboarders who glide through shots or the half-painted wall in Kelli’s living room. (The effective location cinematography is by Anne Etheridge, with the Hudson Valley substituting for Rust Belt Ohio.) But Johnson can’t sustain, much less build, momentum over the course of her first feature. As a rare look at the experience of a female veteran, her film has inherent interest, which she squanders by failing to engage the audience in this potentially fascinating and moving story.