Kelli (Linda Cardellini) returns to her small Rust Belt hometown after a tour of duty in one of the United States' recent wars. She's glad to be back with husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and two daughters, but, as her attempts to adjust fail, even those relationships begin to fray. Her old friends want to hear war stories, but Kelli isn't really interested in the subject; her memories are more of tedium than action or heroism.
Everyone is walking on eggshells, and with good reason. Despite her initial sense that she can just go back to how things were, she finds her friends' everyday chatter unengaging, then trivial and even irritating. The warehouse job she's held for a decade now strikes her as meaningless; she simply walks away from it. And she also is put off by everyone asking her if she cheated on Mike while overseas.
All foreign wars have their own tales about the tribulations of returning servicemen. Stories about re-turnees trying to reintegrate into what was once their normal world probably predate Homer. In the last century, World War I gave us Hemingway's "Soldier's Home," and World War II "The Best Years of Our Lives," to name two masterpieces. Such stories are all the same, and they are all different.
The increased role of women in the military over the past few decades has added gender issues into the mix. (Rachel McAdams played a similar, but arguably shallower, role in 2008's "The Lucky Ones.") "Return," writer/director Liza Johnson's debut feature, fits the "Soldier's Home" template; most of the issues are similar, but being a woman surely shades some of them. When Kelli makes a minor irresponsible blunder with one of the kids, Mike furiously upbraids her. The onus would likely be less (or at least different) if the roles were reversed.
There are also economic and class issues in play. She and Mike are constantly scrambling to make ends meet; she can't just take advantage of the GI Bill when her family needs that warehouse salary now. There seems to be no place – professionally or personally – where she'll fit in. Johnson simply shows us Kelli's life; the only development that approaches being a resolution is ironic and temporary.
Shannon chalks up another line on his rapidly growing résumé of memorable performances. But it's mostly Cardellini's show – she's in every scene. Her portrayal may at first seem opaque, as though she isn't quite sure who Kelli is. But that is, of course, the point. Kelli isn't quite sure who Kelli is. Grade: B (Unrated)