DVD Review - Return (2012)

Happy Memorial Day! We honor our military members today, particularly the ones who have died in service but really all of our U.S. soldiers, both home and abroad. PBS is honoring them by broadcasting Hell and Back Again, the Oscar-nominated documentary, as part of its Independent Lens series. The movie offers visceral and in-the-moment combat footage, but, for Memorial Day, I'd like to write about and recommend a recent release that's not about combat but more about the effects and aftermath. I'd like to write about Liza Johnson's Return.

Linda Cardellini who some might remember from the short-lived Freaks and Geeks as well as the hit NBC series ER, stars as Kelli, a member of the National Guard who comes back home to Ohio after being deployed for a year at a base hospital in the Middle East. Her husband and plumber Mike, played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, welcomes her along with her two young daughters. Her friends welcome her. Her old boss in her dilapidated town even gives her old factory job back to Kelli. Immediately though, one can tell that something isn't right about her.

Interestingly, there's a scene here that reminded me of Hell and Back Again. In the documentary, the soldier who returns from Afghanistan is shopping in a Walmart. He's riding around in a motorized cart and one can tell that something isn't right about him. In that movie, his wounds are more visible. Here, we see Kelli also shopping in a Walmart-like store. She's pushing a cart with her toddler inside. However, her wounds aren't visible.

Since the war in Afghanistan and especially since the war in Iraq, several films have dealt with the idea of these invisible scars or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The most notable was probably The Hurt Locker (2009), which won the Oscar for Best Picture. The internal struggle and difficulty of a soldier re-adjusting to civilian life wasn't the main theme, but it has been the main theme of films, such as Home of the Brave (2006), Stop-Loss (2008), The Lucky Ones (2008), Brothers (2009) and The Dry Land (2010).

Usually, the source of the PTSD is a horrible event that happens to the soldier. The people in Kelli's life think that some horrible event happened to her. Kelli says nothing happened. Some people don't believe her. Kelli insists that others had it way worse and that she's fine. One wonders if she's lying or if merely being over there is enough. Must someone be under gunfire in order to have PTSD? What are the requirements of experience? It's not ever known but Cardellini's face clearly expresses a depression that is undeniable.

She tries to connect with people, most notably her husband, and she fails. Often it's her fault. Other times, it's others, but whatever she experienced while deployed, it continues to separate her from her home life, even though she's physically back in her home. That separation and detachment that were merely a geographical truth are now an emotional truth, and they become the catalyst for her subsequent problems. What scares her is that the emotional separation will once again become geographical separation and that fear, regardless of what happened to her over there, is palpable.

We don't see her over there, as we see characters in other films, but we do get a sense of the distinction between what a soldier feels in a war zone compared to in civilian life. At first, the little things don't matter and then they're all that do matter. At first, getting back to your family is all that a soldier thinks about and then it's like your family are aliens because they don't understand what you went through. There is a scene where Kelli meets Bud, played by John Slattery (Mad Men). Bud offers her respite because he's a veteran too.

Director Liza Johnson consulted with actual U.S. Marines in order to get the feeling of this movie correct. She doesn't go for the bullets and the bombs, and she doesn't go for the big melodramatic moments. I love how in many instances she conveys information or plot points without being obvious, often without dialogue. One crucial moment when Kelli has to tell her two daughters something important, Johnson plays it in an extreme wide-shot where the camera is far away and we don't even hear Kelli speaking. All we get is the reaction of her eldest daughter Jackie, played by 7-year-old Emma Rayne Lyle. On the DVD, Johnson does commentary where she talks about the rush they were in while making this movie but a moment like that, while done probably for timing reasons, was perfectly achieved.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.


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