Looking back on Linda Cardellini in 'Return'

Posted by · 1:15 pm · March 20th, 2012

We spend so much time in the blogosphere looking forward to things that we don’t always notice, or at least sufficiently discuss, worthwhile work that is ready for viewing right away. For so many films, all conversation about them ceases the second they become available to audiences — which is least kind, of course, to small specialty items that need sustained chatter to prod the viewers they deserve. 

This is a roundabout way of expressing my regret that Liza Johnson’s independent drama “Return” — which I saw and greatly liked in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year, and had been looking forward to spotlighting closer to its release — actually hit US screens last month, and amid the flurry of Oscar-related coverage, I somehow didn’t notice.

Hey, better late than never. The film, a modest, intelligent entry in the growing American genre of post-Iraq war-at-home studies, may have largely vanished from theaters, but Focus Features has made it available on iTunes and On Demand, and you owe it to yourself to dig it out. More pointedly, you owe it to Linda Cardellini, who has quietly delivered the performance of her — or many an undersung TV actor’s — career here.

I’ve always been rooting for Cardellini, a warm, dryly engaging actress most affectionately remembered for her droll star turn in the abruptly curtailed cult sitcom “Freaks and Geeks.” She was an equally valuable sweet-sour presence in the latter, lesser years of “ER.” Save a tart, emotionally crucial bit part in “Brokeback Mountain,” however, she’s never been given the big-screen workout her unassuming talent calls for. Here it is.

If you still need persuasion, there’s typically robust supporting work from Michael Shannon and John Slattery on offer, but Cardellini’s the one the film is generously, though not fawningly, constructed around. Playing Kelli, a PTSD-afflicted army reservist returning to her husband and children in Ohio after a tour of duty in the Middle East, and having predictable trouble readjusting to her working-class suburban existence, the actress is impressively wary of the role’s ample scope for showy, affectedly gritty hysterics.

Given the unfamiliarity of such substantial leads in her filmography, you’d hardly blame the actress for grandly flexing her range, but she’s opted for a flintier, more morally inquisitive approach to Kelli’s surfeit of inadequately Band-Aided psychological crevices, which manifest themselves both in idle depression and more severe alcoholism — though she and Johnson take equal interest in both routes of mental decay, creating a character too bored by her own damage to detect its escalation.

Some will find the film a shade anti-dramatic compared to recent, more urgent cinematic takes on this well-worn subject, but that’s rather the point. Kelli’s horrific past is no more actively analyzed than her numb present; trauma is not presented here as a structured state of being, but as a dully indefinite one.

Assisting the film’s smart evasion of pat redemptive arcs is the equally faulty moral compass of the men in Kelli’s life. Michael Shannon’s lovingly bewildered husband appears at first to be a dependable baseline of sorts — if you squint slightly, you can cast Cardellini in Shannon’s role in the recent “Take Shelter,” with Shannon himself flipped to Jessica Chastain duty — until his infidelities surface. John Slattery, as a jovial motivator type Kelli meets at a reluctantly attended therapy session, appears poised to play substitute, until his own inner wounds prove alarmingly untended.

“Return” is a film that distributes pain without cheaply universalizing it; countering some faintly pedestrian storytelling and its beigely indie composition, it’s that clear-eyed maturity that makes it a tiny bit special. Well, that and Linda Cardellini: a call for awards attention (save perhaps the Spirits) would be sadly far-fetched, but here’s hoping this is the first of several such showcases for her in the independent realm.

Any of you seen it yet? Do chime in if you have. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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