Homefront drama “Return” deals entirely in a creased and careworn realism, but its premise is reminiscent of the kind of theater experiments that look for a new perspective on a classic production by reversing the races of its characters or shifting the time period or setting. The basic story of artist-turned-director Liza Johnson‘s feature debut is familiar — a soldier returns from war and is unable to assimilate back into civilian life, while loving family and friends grow impatient, unable to understand the difficulty. But the film’s very contemporary displaced protagonist is female — Kelli (Linda Cardellini) is a member of the National Guard coming home from a tour of duty in the Middle East. Her plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) has remained in the working class town in which they live, caring for their two young daughters. Despite Kelli’s eagerness to be home, she finds it impossible to slip easily back into the place she once occupied, and looks around in frustration for what’s changed while refusing to acknowledge that the answer may be her.
Kelli wasn’t in combat. She worked in supplies, mainly for hospitals, and “other people had it a lot worse than I did” becomes her mantra, repeated to deflect the expressed concerns of those around her. But you don’t have to wield a weapon yourself to see things you can’t shake off, and whether Kelli is suffering from PTSD or something more vague, some inability to downshift to the pace of civilian life, she begins to break apart. Overwhelmed and drunk at a bar with her friends, she climbs out the bathroom window rather than go back inside. Later she quits the warehouse job she’s held for years and that was kept open for her, saying “it’s just a giant waste of time, I can’t do it anymore.” At home, her former ease with Mike is forced — he weeps when his tickling her on the couch triggers distress and she pushes him away. When she discovers his infidelity, the timing of which is unclear, he moves out, and what’s left of the life she used to lead quickly unravels, with a DUI, a battle for her kids and the threat of being redeployed.
“Return” is a (very) modest portrait of a breakdown — there are no screaming revelations, no waving of guns around the house in the middle of the night. The signs that Kelli’s upset are subterranean, sometimes to a fault, the extent of her troubles unclear because she refuses to face up to them and we have to guess at them beneath the layer of normalcy she’s put up. The role, despite the overdose of minimalism, is a great one for Cardellini, who has struggled to find a showcase for her talents equal to the one she had as Lindsay Weir in the still lamented “Freaks and Geeks.” The air of practicality Cardellini’s capable of exuding suits Kelli and makes her anxiety all the more perturbing because of the exasperation she feels in herself for being unable to process it. Even when it seems she might be ready to accept help, there are no structures to turn to — her friends are supportive but can’t relate, Mike not unjustifiably takes custody of their daughters after she forgets to pick the older up from school, and a drunk-driving incident lands her in a court-mandated recovery program despite the fact that she’s not an alcoholic. The one person it seems she might be able to relate to is acerbic fellow vet Bud (John Slattery, an amusing but jarring presence), who reveals himself to be in no shape to help anyone.
At times the film’s unspecified blue-collar setting can feel disingenuous instead of lived in — when Slattery first appears, in particular, it takes a while to get back to thinking of the people on screen as characters instead of attractive TV talent in search for actorly legitimacy by dressing down and not wearing makeup. “Return” is most intriguing in how it deals, in small ways, with how Kelli’s gender shapes her experiences coming home, expressed mainly through her own expectations of herself. She repaints the house and rearranges the dishes in the cabinets in an attempt to reclaim her space, but her domestic and maternal instincts don’t automatically fill in as she seems to feel they should. The difficulty she has in articulating what’s wrong and the sense that there’s no one for her to turn to are exacerbated by the fact that she doesn’t see herself as a typical soldier, that there’s no established context for her experiences. Kelli’s dread of being sent back, of not having enough time to pick up the pieces of her shattered home life, sends her on a frantic last-minute quest to get pregnant by someone, anyone in order to not be eligible for redeployment. It’s a terrible and not terribly rational idea, but one that speaks to her mindset at that moment — having another baby wouldn’t just mean they’ll have to let her stay, it’d provide a foothold there, a desperate way for her to get back to the person she used to be. [B]