A lone woman is standing at baggage claim in full army uniform. The look on her face suggests doubt that anyone is coming for her. She lingers for a moment until a squeal is heard and the camera pans down to her young daughter latching on to her. As Kelli, played by Linda Cardellini (of Freaks and Geeks fame) reunites with her husband and two daughters, the camera hangs so close to their faces it's almost suffocating.
In writer/director Liza Johnson's debut film, Return, Kelli returns home from the Middle East to Ohio, where her comfort and sense of ease are a tempting but dangerous trap. She excels at her warehouse job of 12 years, re-engages in sex with her husband, and constantly falls asleep in her daughters' room. But just as the camera relentlessly focuses on Kelli's face, her small blue-collar town seems to be closing in on her as well.
The minimal use of music and isolated shots of Kelli, amid the hubbub of her family, reflect how alienated she has become from reality. Johnson's slow-moving shots of her folding laundry, smelling fresh towels, and strolling through the local superstore provoke the difficult realization that most of our lives are spent acting out meaningless tasks--a contrast to life at war. As Kelli's husband and friends try to squeeze any information or stories out of her, the audience starts to fester alongside her, and to resent not only her peers, but our dear country for lacking any sort of support system for the soldiers it deports.
As Kelli starts to unravel, the film's dialogue plays smoothly--a surprise given that this is Johnson's first feature. Kelli's failure to assimilate back into normal life and motherhood starts to take a toll on her husband Mike (Michael Shannon), whose affections have wandered to a local girl. An argument between the couple is played so adeptly by Cardinelli that I'm disappointed we haven't seen more of her in recent years.
As Kelli falls, we're the only ones who seem to understand--and to want to catch her. Without one utterance of how she feels, we see it in her face at each moment. Through the examination of this character's return from a war ground, the audience develops a better understanding of the atrocities of war. Not only does it destroy those doing the fighting, but the survivors, lacking any coping mechanisms, slowly deteriorate as well.