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USA 2011
Directed by
Liza Johnson
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Writer-director Liza Johnson’s feature debut is a modestly-scaled drama about a female soldier (Linda Cardellini) who returns from an unspecified location on the Middle Eastern front to her home in working-class Ohio.

There are now plenty of films, from Suzanne Bier’s Brødre (remade by Jim Sheridan as Brothers) to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker that have dealt with the difficulties of adjusting to domesticated normality after serving in the US Armed Forces in the Middle East but Return is unusual in that its protagonist is a woman.

Johnson follows the story of National Reservist Kelli (Cardellini) after she returns home to her plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and two young daughters and life in a drab small-town. Although keen to pick up from where she left off she finds herself no longer able to fit in with the drudgery of the everyday and quickly her behaviour grows more erratic. When she discovers that her husband is having an affair she goes into a tailspin.

Linda Cardellini is very much the mainstay of the film and she acquits herself handsomely. Johnson’s script doesn’t give her character any great cross to bear or even tell us much about her tour of duty but instead focuses on her inability to interpellate herself back into her old way of life. Cardellini captures this disconnect effectively whilst keeping Kelli's emotional life closely internalized. Seemingly stoically resigned to her lot, Kelli is a character whose pain we feel acutely and empathize with. The other roles, including Michael Shannon’s, are largely adjuncts to Cardellini’s performance and although this limits the dramatic range of the film somewhat  there is certainly enough here to make this in general a film well-worth watching and essential viewing for anyone interested in representations of America's military involvement in the Middle East.

My only significant criticism is that the women are far too photogenic, especially Bonnie Swencionis as Michael’s girlfriend – that a smokin’ hot babe would take up with a dull, married plumber with two kids just doesn’t ring true and this takes away somewhat from what is otherwise an effective realist drama.




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