In Return, director Liza Johnson signals the alienation of recently home-from-deployment soldier Kelli (Linda Cardellini) by isolating her character in a disorienting series of close-ups, framing her in long shot against a particularly menacing backdrop of consumer goods (televisions, board games, La-Z-Boys) at a Walmart-style superstore, or simply observing the perpetual look of sadness and confusion on the actress’s face. The film may not break any new ground in its portrayal of the difficulties of adjustment to civilian life (a topic already covered rather exhaustively in recent films from The Hurt Locker to The Dry Land), but in coming at her material with an unassuming, detail-rich approach, Johnson plausibly, engagingly recasts the familiar.
In fact, it’s when the film falls back on the most familiar tropes—in this case having to do with the inevitable intrusion of the narrative—that it runs into the most trouble. So long as we’re observing as Kelli fails to share in her husband and two young daughters’ laughter while taking in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos or watching her walk around a vividly depicted, economically depressed Ohio town, Johnson remains on solid ground. But when the inevitable can’t-keep-a-job plotline and the resultant marital difficulties—and with it revelations of infidelity and subsequent custody battles—rear their ugly heads, the film settles into the sort of forced plotting that threatens to undo the sharp, seemingly effortless observations that came before.
Actually, if anything, Johnson seems to be treading a little too lightly throughout much of the film, dancing around the details of Kelli’s involvement, even conspicuously avoiding revealing which war she was involved in (though, realistically, it would have to be either Iraq or Afghanistan). But her caution is also part of the point. Throughout the film, characters continually prod Kelli to reveal the supposed trauma that caused her current alienation, but since her war experience was on a supply detail and she didn’t see any direct combat, there’s no secret whose revelation will set her free—and provide closure and explanation for the viewer. As Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, understands, simply being over there changes someone, no matter if anything unusually traumatic happened to the person.
While the rest of the town fails to understand Kelli’s experience, she meets an older man, a Vietnam vet, who seems to share her mindset, and whatever tentative information we learn about her background comes via an idyllic, if vaguely sinister, sequence when she accompanies the man to his cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, this sequence ends with a twist that steers the film into a questionable bit of plotting that seems almost entirely at odds with the believable naturalism of the remainder of the movie. While this final miscalculation can’t negate Johnson’s refreshingly restrained take on the “soldier’s home” narrative, the film’s taking a frankly ludicrous turn certainly doesn’t add anything to our understanding of what it’s like for a GI to cycle back and forth between a hellish war zone and a deadening small-town existence.