Where war is hell in real life, Hollywood has often viewed it as a glorious opportunity for flag-waving patriotism, its happy veterans returning home to familial fulfillment. At least that’s the way it was until 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives tried to take a then as realistic as possible look at the toll of battle on the homefront. Cinematic PTSD has gotten particularly more traumatic and honest through succeeding generations of film veterans, whether they were returning shell-shocked from Vietnam (The Deer Hunter, Coming Home), or Iraq (In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss).
Yet, as powerful as some of these movies might be, few come across as honestly or as lacking in histrionic fireworks as Return. It’s an atypical attitude that’s personified by Linda Cardellini -- an actress best known for her quirky talents in Freaks and Geeks, E.R., and two Scooby-Doo appearances as geek mystery-solving goddess Velma. While Cardellini’s character of Kelli might do her best to put on a happy face for husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and her two kids upon returning from supply duty in Iraq, it quickly becomes apparent that she’s a member of the walking wounded. Like so many real-life veterans, Kelli’s baggage of unspoken trauma quickly unravels the old life she’d hoped to come back to, let alone her marriage, motherhood, and sanity.
Given the powerful writing and direction of Liza Johnson (making an impressive theatrical debut here), Kelli remains hard-pressed to acknowledge that anything’s wrong, repeating her mantra of how lots of people had it tough over there. Daring to engage our sympathy, Cardellini’s performance is a revelation in its seeming simplicity, utterly convincing us of a catastrophic experience buried deep inside her. Minus the all-too-real clichés of vet movies, Cadellini’s powerful work makes Return stand proud as one of the least flashy and most honestly searing movies Hollywood has made about coming home, its story only continuing to multiply way beyond theater screens with a legion of real-life Kellis walking back to homefronts they can never truly return to.
Daniel Schweiger: This is an “Iraq” movie about a damaged veteran that’s missing the usual “break down and cry scene,” or the flashback to the traumatic event of shooting innocent civilians in Iraq. And Return seems all the more real for that.
Linda Cadellini: Right. When I read Liza’s script, I expected some emotional explosion or a flashback to happen, but you never get them. Not getting an explanation for Kelli’s problems became very powerful to me. And because the film doesn’t really tell you exactly what Kelli went through, it allows her experience to be more generalized, both in terms of the soldiers leaving for home, and for those who’ve already been deployed.
DS: Did you create your own scenario for whatever it was that traumatized Kelli?
LC: Yes, I did. I made up many, many things, but I kept them to myself. I also thought it was important to meet as many people as I could and hear their stories. That allowed me to feed Kelli’s many silences with as many details as I could.
DS: Was there a kind of generality you found from talking to veterans?
LC: While their experiences have some common threads, everybody’s story is still different. A lot of what I heard resonates in Return. It’s very hard for soldiers to explain to people who haven’t been there what they’ve gone through. There’s almost a resistance from people at home to hearing it because it might be so ugly -- at least that’s the perception that many returning soldiers have. So they aren’t forthcoming with the people at home, even when they want them to be. That creates a real big disconnect. It un-rattles families and relationships. That was important for us to depict in the film.
DS: A studio take on the material might have made Mike into the kind of evil husband who abandons his wife at the first sign of trouble, yet Return takes unusual steps in making him sympathetic. You really understand his decision when he’s had enough of Kelli’s distancing behavior.
LC: I think his character is really human. It’s also fun to see Michael Shannon play the straight guy. He’s so good at everything and is such a fantastic actor, and he lets us see how Mike really wants things to get back to normal with Kelli. They both have the same goal in mind, which is to get their family back as it was, but it just seems impossible for them, for many different reasons.
DS: While some people can say it’s foolish to enlist in a military that’s entrenched in the Middle East, Return makes a point of having Kelli state that she, in fact, joined the National Guard to help tornado-struck people, but she ends up getting sucked into a fight she had no intention of joining in the first place.
LC: It’s something that happens to a lot of people. They sign up for one reason or another, whether it’s the National Guard or the military. Maybe they want to get out of their location or they want more opportunities for education. Or maybe they see it as a good way to support their families. When you list something like the Coast Guard or the Reserves, it doesn’t seem like you’ll be involved in active duty. But that changed for a lot of people. Their deployment and their involvement in the armed forces was re-defined. I think that’s something Kelli is dealing with as well. Helping people deal with tornadoes is a very different thing than handling supplies in a war zone.
DS: Return reminded me of Winter’s Bone in its completely naturalistic approach. It never feels like you’re watching a “movie” here. What kind of a challenge is it, as an actress, to go for that kind of absolute realism?
LC: That was the greatest part about the film, for me, because the goal of any actress is to make someone believe that you’re a human being and that they’re actually looking in on your life. I was so happy with the beauty and naturalism of Return. It almost looks like you’re watching a documentary.
DS: Do you think this is a universal story for returning soldiers, or that there’s a difference in what female and male veterans go through upon their return to America?
LC: I think the expectations are different on the returning soldier. People are a little more educated on a male returning home in the same way they’re more equipped to see a man leave home. But with more and more women deploying, I think we’re now understanding their experience better. Women typically didn’t leave the home years ago. Now they’re leaving their families to do these military jobs overseas. They come back, and their husbands have been taking care of the children, which I thought was a really interesting part of the story. There was something that happened to Kelli over there that couldn’t happen to a man, but you never know exactly what it is. Yet one of the reasons that I liked the film was because it wasn’t so gender-specific. Anyone can be traumatized by their experience in the Middle East and have it effect them upon their return home. What’s different for Kelli is that she’s returning as a woman, with all of the expectations that people have on mothers and wives and women in society. I found that very interesting to play with.
DS: A movie that played at Sundance was Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, which deals with rapes that are facing female soldiers there. Was this something that crossed your mind?
LC: Definitely. I don’t think you can research the war without knowing about it. For me, one of the interesting things about playing the part was to educate myself on something that I feel I should have known more about as an American citizen, especially with the soldiers going over there and representing us. We go on with our daily lives and don’t really know much about what’s going on. Or if we do, we learn about it from the news. There’s a lot of trauma and tragedy. Some people bring that home, and some people are able to cope with it. Kelli’s story is really interesting because you don’t know exactly what she brings home, but you know she’s having a hard time coping with it.
DS: Most films about our fight in the Middle East don’t say if it’s right or if it’s wrong. Do you think these movies should have a political message to them, one way or the other?
LC: While some do, I think it’s better to reach more people by not being so divisive. Return doesn’t tell you exactly what to think, or what Kelli thinks, for that matter. I think it just tries to relate to a human experience. And that’s what the people returning home really want you to do -- to support them at a human level. They don’t want to sit there and talk about policy. I think, the people who are coming home, regardless if you believe in the war, made a sacrifice in the name of all of us. We owe it to them to be supportive human beings, regardless of what we think about the policy that was made that took them over there. It really wasn’t their decision.
DS: Do you think there’s a feeling, in the general public, that people are kind of forgetting about The Middle East now that we’ve seemingly withdrawn from Iraq?
LC: I don’t think so. I hope not. I know I’m not. If anything, I think it’s becoming more and more visible. I also think the majority of Americans want to support the people who are returning, regardless of how they felt about the wars. I think, as we see more and more people coming home, we’ll have no choice but to try to be more educated about how to handle things and how to relate to the people who were there.
DS: Motherhood is a very important part of the film, not to mention an expectant mother like you. What did Return teach you about dealing with children?
LC: The kids were fantastic -- just sweet and beautiful little girls. There were a set of twins that played the youngest, and Emma Rayne Lyle, who played the oldest of Kelli’s children. I was lucky, as an actress, to be able to look into such innocent faces while having so much heavy drama going on outside. It was a nice juxtaposition for me. It also made me realize how difficult motherhood is. There’s no one answer on how to care for your family, especially in Kelli’s situation. In any case, I think I have a lot of challenges ahead of me!
DS: Do you think Return has your breakout role?
LC: I would love it if it did. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to give me such a wonderful role, and I’m really lucky Liza did. I hope people will see the film and be affected by it.
DS: To end on a lighter note, what do you think your Velma is doing now, and do you ever see yourself stepping back into her eyeglasses with Scooby and the gang?
LC: I loved that part. It’s so fun to play a character that’s so broad yet smart. Velma is not some dumb bimbo. While I might not play Velma on The Cartoon Network’s Scooby-Doo show, I do play one of her friends. That’s really fun, but every time a voice actor says “Velma,” I turn my head because I think they’re talking to me.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman.
DADA Films' 'Return' opens Friday, February 10, 2012 in Los Angeles and New York.