' ' Cinema Romantico: Return

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Face-acting? Is that a term? If not can we officially enter it into the Movie Lexicon and can we do it on account of Linda Cardellini’s fine, quietly demonstrative work in her coming home saga “Return” (just released on DVD)? Essentially, and nearly improbably, writer/director Liza Johnson is asking Cardellini to convey the narrative of an entire film within her face. She is Kelli, a National Guard Reservist, and as the film opens she has just returned from duty overseas. She greets her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and her two daughters, and in these early scenes – a party in her honor, returning to work, going out with the girls – her face is bright with relief and elation at being back in her old Ohio home and eager, maybe, to fall back into a less volatile routine. Slowly, though Cardellini strips away the glow to reveal, in order, confusion, depression, anger, desperation, and then, finally, nothing.

Events happen, sure, of course they do, because they must. Kelli suddenly, perhaps irrationally, becomes fed up with her old job at a factory and walks out. Mike seems not distant but coy, as if hiding something. Indeed, he is, in the form of an affair apparently started while Kelli was in Iraq. Kelli becomes disconsolate, gets too drunk, gets a DUI. Yet despite having her license confiscated she still drives her car, except she forgets to pick up her oldest daughter after school and leaves her alone in a possibly not so good place. Mike moves to his mother’s and takes the kids. Kelli meets another vet in her DUI class who understands her experiences but has not necessarily learned how to deal properly with his own.

In order and on paper these events come across apt for melodrama, but Johnson’s film – severely indie but still classical – is almost entirely devoid of the Shouting From The Mountain Tops that typically populates “when I got back from the war” (do veterans really say that? I’m curious) films. Johnson takes one of the oldest tropes in the book – The Unplanned Pregnancy – and niftily turns it around. There is nary a flashback to the horrors of war. In fact, the horrors of war are hardly addressed. What did she do over there? Something with supplies. What did she see over there? A few dead bodies, but other people had it worse. She always offers that disclaimer: other people had it worse. People try to get her to talk but she declines and bottles it up and yet, simultaneously, it’s there – it’s all there, scene to scene and moment to moment on Cardellini’s face. Please don’t assume her face becomes over-expressive puddy like Jim Carrey, no, it’s so much more delicate but it is entirely unmistakable.

Because she never talks about it we are conditioned to expect some sort of third act revelation that will explain it all away, summarizing and assigning context. It never arrives. Johnson does resort to a crisis at the climax, however, that suspiciously evokes the crisis at the climax in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2006 “Sherrybaby” almost to the letter. Was this intentional? Unintentional? Hard to say and probably unimportant. It demonstrates that even if Kelli’s life has sunk into upheaval that maybe she hasn’t completely lost touch. At least, not yet.

The film closes, as it should, with a plaintive close-up of Cardellini’s face. In a way its conclusion is the counterpoint to “Hurt Locker.” She is not a thrill-seeker. She is bound. And the life that awaited her last time during deployment will not be waiting for her this time. She is looking into the abyss and nothing is looking back at her.

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