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Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (8th August 2012).
The Film

Return (Liza Johnson, 2011)

The first commercial feature of its director Liza Johnson, Return (2011) shows an assured understanding of narrative cinema. Prior to writing and directing Return, Johnson had previously made several acclaimed shorts, and as a student she had directed a feature length drama, Fernweh – The Opposite of Homesick (1999), during her studies under a DAAD scholarship in Berlin. Johnson’s background is in fine art, and she claims that over the years, her work as an artist (creating installation art) and short film maker has become increasingly ‘cinematic’: although she has ‘been working with non-professional actors where they work out versions of themselves […] the idiom and grammar has been very much like narrative film’ (Johnson, quoted in Kennedy, 2012: np). Johnson has also asserted that Return shares many similarities with her more avant-garde artworks: ‘In a lot of ways the forms of what I’ve been doing and the themes are organically similar to Return. The big difference for me was to try to do something that has a plot and has professionally trained actors’ (ibid.).

Return focuses on Kelli (Linda Cardellini), who returns to small town American life following a year working in military medical stores in an unnamed Middle East conflict zone. Returning home, Kelli struggles to relate to her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and their two children. Fuelled by her friends, she comes to believe that during her absence, Mike has been conducting an affair with another woman. Her suspicions alienate her even further from her family, and eventually Mike leaves her, taking the children with him. Although Kelli has little in common with her two daughters, she struggles to come to terms with their absence; and when she is stopped for driving whilst drunk, Kelli is forced to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous program. There, she meets Bud (John Slattery), a war veteran and unrepentant alcoholic. When Kelli receives her ‘re-up’ orders, she realises that this will mean she is out of the country when the custody hearing for her children is due; she begins a brief affair with Bud which ends in disappointment, before embarking on a series of casual sexual encounters in the hope of getting herself pregnant (thus allowing her to refuse to go overseas). However, she is unsuccessful and we say goodbye to her as she waits in the departure lounge of the same airport that, in the opening sequence, we saw her greeted by her family as she returned home.

It would be easy to wrap up Kelli’s behaviour and her feelings of alienation as an example of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that would be reductive: the film subtly suggests that her self-destructive behaviour and drinking, coupled with her increasingly aggressive language, is fuelled/enabled as much by the culture ‘back home’ as by her experiences overseas. From the party celebrating Kelli’s return home, we see her friends encourage her use of alcohol, and on a ‘girl’s night out’ we see Kelli and her friends on a drinking binge, one of her friends filling the group’s glasses from a hip flask, ironically asserting ‘Drink wisely’.

Kelli’s alienation from normal small town life is signalled early on too: during a shopping trip, she stares at a wall of television sets and, later, at shelves filled with board games. The scene recalls the supermarket sequence in Kathryn Bigelow’s recent The Hurt Locker (2008), in which Bigelow depicted the protagonist’s (Jeremy Renner) isolation and alienation through a moment in which, upon returning home from Iraq, he wanders through the cereal aisle of a supermarket. He is at once bewildered by the variety of products and frustrated by the monotony of what The Hurt Locker’s scriptwriter Mark Boal has referred to as ‘the American consumer experience’ (Boal, quoted in Gaita, 2010). Of course, such scenes aren’t new: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first film, Love is Colder than Death (1969), featured a sequence in which the film’s deeply alienated protagonists wandered through a supermarket: writing about Fassbinder’s film in terms that could be applied to the similar sequences in both Return and The Hurt Locker, Leo A Lensing (2012) has asserted that ‘[i]n overexposed light, identical mass-produced items are arranged alongside one another, their labels aligned – a bright, Warholian image of endless reproductibility’ (np).

From her return, Kelli is unable to relate to her family: although she sleeps on the floor of her childrens’ bedroom, she struggles to understand them. Whilst Mike and the children watch a knockabout comedy show on television, Kelli sits with them; she’s clearly disinterested, glancing away and eventually offering a comment on the colour of the walls (‘Do you think these walls are too yellow?’) that is ignored by everybody else in the room. When her baby daughter taps her hand, Kelli asks ‘What’s she doing?’ ‘Nothing; she just does that’, the eldest daughter asserts. The moment underscores Kelli’s emotional distance from both her husband and her children.

Returning to her job at a local warehouse, Kelli is initially enthusiastic. ‘Like falling off a bike’, her male colleague says, watching her work quickly. ‘Everything seems so small’, she tells him: ‘over there, the quantities are gigantic’. ‘Slow down: you’re making me look bad’, her male colleague jokes as she walks away. However, the next time we see her at work she is much less enthusiastic, the boredom writ across her face. Finally, she quits her job, asserting that ‘It’s fucking stupid […] It’s just a giant waste of time. I can’t do it anymore’. Her actions are met with befuddlement by her employer, who understandably tells her, ‘I kept a job open a year, and you’ve been working for me for twelve years. I’d like to know the reason’. ‘She’s just upset’, Kelli’s male colleague offers.

Her behaviour is confusing to those around her. Her friends seem insistent on pressuring her into telling them what they presume to be the horrific secrets of her time in the Middle East, but Kelli is insistent that the time she spent overseas was less than eventful. (The film remains ambiguous as to whether or not Kelli is repressing a trauma: Johnson is less concerned with what happened to Kelli overseas than with her actions upon her return home.) One of Kelli’s friends tries to coax a story out of Kelli, telling her ‘They say it helps to talk about it’. However, Kelli insists that, ‘Seriously, other people had it a lot worse than I did […] I saw some dead people and weird shit there, you know; mostly, I saw a giant amount of supplies’. Echoing the ‘endless reproductibility’ of the consumer society that the supermarket scene suggests, Kelli absurdly adds, ‘Did you ever see a plane full of rubber gloves?’ Later, she tells a different friend, ‘A lot of people had it a lot worse. I didn’t get raped in a portapotty, I didn’t have to carry a dead body’; and she offers a similar assertion during one of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she is forced to attend, stating once again that ‘a lot of people had it a lot worse’.

Kelli’s behaviour is a cause for concern for those around her. However, her family and friends, and society in general, is not able to offer her the support she needs. When he discovers that Kelli has quit her job, Mike petulantly complains that ‘I’ve been playing Mister Mom over here, okay, covered in puke and baby shit’, before informing her, ‘You have no plan, okay. You need to get a plan’. The Alcoholics Anonymous sessions that Kelli is forced to attend are another blind alley. The leader of the session asks Kelli to talk, offering some clichéd phrases: ‘For a lot of us, not just Kelly, we’re using alcohol and drugs to respond to something else that happened in our lives, and a lot of times, if we can just deal with our lives, it can help us in our recovery’. He asks her to talk about her time overseas. ‘Telling your trauma is an important step’, he tells her. ‘I don’t want to have a story for you’, she informs him. The session leader is challenged by Bud, who comes to Kelli’s rescue: ‘Which step is it of the twelve? [….] You ever fight? [….] I tell you something, next time I get a DUI I’m taking jail time, because you don’t know shit about what she’s talking about’.

For a while, Bud seems to function as a kindred spirit for Kelli. Offering her a lift home one day, he complains about the way in which veterans are treated, suggesting that an overload of cognitive therapy is in its own way as bad as the neglect that veterans of earlier wars received: ‘Jesus Christ, it must suck, coming home with all these Oprah assholes up your ass. You know, when I came home, nobody gave a shit. Nobody said a word, which sucked in its own way, but at least there was nobody up my ass to try to get me tell me, “What was it over there that made you the kind of person that would walk his fucking cat on a leash”’. However, Kelli’s illusions about Bud are shattered when she discovers, after sleeping with him, that he’s not only an alcoholic but also a non-functioning drug addict.

In interview, Linda Cardellini has stated that Kelli ‘can’t really communicate why she’s different, but she is. Somehow, someway, something […] that she can’t quite open up to and even admit to herself’ (Virgin Media, 2012: np). The character isn’t entirely sympathetic: in one sequence, she returns home only to discover that she has confused Monday with Tuesday and forgotten to collect her daughter from school. Luckily, the child has been found by a policeman. ‘I thought I could walk. I’m big’, Kelli’s daughter tells her. ‘You’re not big’, Kelli responds. In desperation, towards the end of the film Kelli abducts her own children, stealing them away from the small town in which they live. However, listening to her daughter discussing how much she loves her home town and school, Kelli eventually turns the car around and takes the children home. Johnson is confident in both the script and performers to ensure that Kelli is a complex, sometimes unsympathetic protagonist, and the whole film is told from Kelli’s point-of-view – signalled in the opening sequence, which begins with the first of many tracking shots following Kelli (in this case, through the airport where she is greeted by Mike and their children).

The film is uncut and runs for 94:11 mins (PAL).


The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, with anamorphic enhancement. For the most part, the film is shot in the style of cinema vérité, making heavy use of handheld tracking shots and jump cuts. In contrast with the bleak subject matter, Return is a vibrant, somewhat colourful film. This is a decent transfer. Blacks seem a little crushed, but this may be an artistic choice.


The disc offers the option of a two-channel stereo track or a 5.1 surround sound track. Both are clear and audible, with the 5.1 surround track offering some subtle surround effects. It’s not a showy audio track, by any means. Sadly, there are no subtitles.


The disc includes bonus trailers for other Network Releasing titles: Absent, Afterschool, Lymelife. These trailers play on disc start-up and are skippable.

The disc also includes the film’s trailer (1:23), an effective teaser for the film set to moody music and the sound of marching troops, and an interview with Linda Cardellini and Liza Johnson (16:52), which seems to have been recorded during a press junket.

In the interview, Johnson and Cardellini are seated together. Johnson describes the film as ‘about a woman who goes back to a town like where I grew up [Portsmouth, Ohio] […] a small, deindustrialised town in the Midwest’. She says that the plot ‘concern[s] the small events of her everyday life as she tries to really come back to her life and feel like she felt before’. Cardellini discusses her role, repeating much of Johnson’s description of the film and foregrounding Kelli’s ‘alienation and dislocation’ from her ‘daily situation [….] something which you see unravel in very subtle and slight ways. It’s about a woman sort of trying to get back to who she was before she left’ but who has been ‘forever changed by her experiences whilst she was gone’.

Cardellini describes the role as ‘beautifully challenging’ and says she was ‘alone on screen quite a bit, and always on screen’, foregrounding the extent to which the film is driven by Kelli’s point of view.

Johnson reveals that the film was shot in 25 days, and the script was written over a year. She received help from the Sundance Institute, which she claims helped her in transitioning from ‘a fine arts background’: she benefitted from help in ‘develop[ing] the mechanics of the story, and also […] develop a language’ that would help her to communicate with her actors. She also talks about the input of Abigail Disney, who had written her PhD thesis on ‘the narratives of soldiers returning from war’.

Cardellini discusses the roles of Michael Shannon and John Slattery, both of whom ‘bring something different out of the character for me’, and the ways in which John’s character offers ‘hope and light’ for Kelli, but she eventually realises that ‘really that’s not what it seems’.

Cardellini says that the film was ‘truly independent’, and this made her feel ‘more so that Liza’s voice was truly the most resonant voice on set [….] It was so nice to have one person’s vision, and it truly be an independent and artistic, visionary portrait of her script’.

Johnson discusses her other plans, including an original script and a couple of adaptations. ‘All of those projects are like Return in the sense that they’re actor-driven, with big, interesting roles’, she asserts.


An interesting film, Return offers a slightly different perspective on the male-dominated subgenre of films depicting the difficulties that war veterans face when coming home – a group of films that include pictures as diverse as action films like First Blood (George P Cosmatos, 1979), paranoid thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962) and classical Hollywood melodramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946). In terms of more recent films, Return has much in common with Susanne Bier’s 2004 film Brødre and its US remake Brothers (Jim Sheridan, 2009). It also bears similarities with the recent British film In Our Name (Brian Welsh, 2010), which like Return focuses on a female veteran of the war in Iraq (Joanne Froggatt) who returns home to find that her relationship with her husband (Mel Raido) – also a war veteran – is strained. However, where In Our Name develops into a more action-oriented thriller, Return is a much more introspective film.

Nevertheless, Johnson refuses to offer easy solutions: the film never confirms whether Kelli’s feelings of alienation and ennui are due to her experiences overseas, or simply a reaction to the culture that surrounds her. Tellingly, during the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Kelli tells one of the other attendees that ‘It’s weird. I really want things to be like they were before I left’. Perhaps the more pertinent question is, where things ever the way she remembered them?

Gaita, Paul, 2010: ‘Scene Dissection: Screenwriter Mark Boal breaks down one of 'The Hurt Locker's' most pivotal moments’. Los Angeles Times. [Online.]

Harris, Brandon, 2012: ‘Liza Johnson, “Return”’. [Online.]

Kennedy, Craig, 2012: ‘Liza Johnson on her feature directorial debut “Return” starring Linda Cardellini and Michael Shannon’. [Online.]

Lensing, Leo A, 2012: ‘Rainer Maria Fassbinder’. In: Peucker, Brigitte (ed), 2012: A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. London: Wiley-Blackwell

Virgin Media, 2012: ‘Return: Exclusive Interview with Liza Johnson and Linda Cardellini’. [Online.]!/return-exclusive-interview-with-liza-johnson-and-linda-cardellini/1547976624001

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