MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

For Veterans, The Point Of No ‘Return’ Often Can Be Found At Home

Kelli, the young Ohio woman portrayed by Linda Cardellini in “Return,” joined the National Guard right after completing high school in the mid-1990s, long after it provided a safe haven for draft-eligible men who weren’t anxious to go to Vietnam to save Southeast Asia for democracy and fast-food franchises.

Like many other Americans her age, Kelli was impressed by the role played by the National Guard during national disasters and other times of need. The money she made would help her family pay some bills and afford the pursuit of a college degree. She couldn’t have imagined the events of 9/11 ever happening, let alone that her unit would be called up to help President George W. Bush get even with Saddam Hussein for attempting to assassinate his daddy, during a visit to Kuwait in 1993.

Neither could the married mother of two young daughters have known that she’d someday be required to remain in Iraq for 16 months, at least, and return at a moment’s notice if the Pentagon so desired. Maybe, she should have read the fine print in her contract.

Even so, upon her return home, Kelli was far more inclined to hug her husband and kids than to complain or place blame. Yes, she had seen many disturbing things, but “a lot of people had it worse than I did.” It’s the same answer American soldiers have been giving to inquisitive civilians since the French and Indian War.

It doesn’t take long for Kelli to realize that something is wrong on the home front. Although her husband and kids were ecstatic to see her at the airport, she quickly senses that her idea of “getting back to normal” doesn’t square with that of her friends and neighbors.  On her first night out of uniform, she abandons the mattress she once shared with Mike (Michael Shannon) and lies down on the rug, alongside her daughters’ beds. Why, exactly, isn’t made clear.

“I left lots of things ambiguous in the story,” allows freshman writer-director Liza Johnson. “There’s a gap of experience between Mike and Kelli. They’d like to close the gap, but it doesn’t seem possible.”

Among the things Johnson leaves ambiguous is how Michael coped with the emptiness in his life during their forced separation. Local gossips lead her to believe that he might – emphasis, might – have had an affair with a flirty redhead, Cara (Bonnie Swencionis), who pops up early on to welcome her home. As interpreted by Oscar-nominee Shannon, Michael is a nice, if strangely withdrawn guy, who’s totally dedicated to his family and job as a plumbing contractor.

Photo by Marc Ohrem-Leclef.

“There’s a huge separation between military and civilian culture,” Johnson adds. “It’s tempting to judge Michael, but he’s in a difficult position, too. I wanted viewers think about what it’s like for a husband to be the one who stays home and takes care of the children.”

The longer she’s home, the more fences Kelli puts up between her family, friends and employers. In addition to pushing her husband away, she unexpectedly walks off the job that was left open until her return. Clearly, too, her definition of normal doesn’t include engaging in “girl talk” with her friends at weddings showers and bars.

At one point, a perplexed girlfriend asks, “What happened to you over there?” All we’re told is that Kelli’s assignment was behind the front lines, but near enough to the action that she couldn’t help put witness the carnage inflicted on her comrades and the enemy.

Finally, Kelli’s undisguised indifference over Mike’s needs causes him to move in with his parents, taking their daughters with him. Normally, this would tip the scales of sympathy in favor of the children’s mother. Here, though, it’s clear that her depression might cause her to neglect them, or worse.

Adding to Kellie’s problems, too, is a DUI conviction that causes her to lose her license and be required to join AA. She bails on the group when she decides that their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, compared to her. It’s not their fault she’s unhappy, but she wants them to feel bad, anyway.

After going AWOL with the one man who does seems to understand what she’s going through, he reveals himself as a junkie merely going through the motions of cleaning up.

Most adults will recognize Cardellini from a completely different tour of duty, as the often-troubled nurse Samantha Taggart on “ER,” or, perhaps, as Cassie in “Brokeback Mountain.” Their children would recall her as Velma in the “Scooby Doo” movies, video games and animated TV series.

“I met Linda in casting,” says Johnson. “She was warm and very aware of her surroundings. On a friend’s advice, I even watched ‘Scoopy Doo 2.’”

“I felt that anyone who could perform so well in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Scoopy Doo,’ could handle this character. In ‘Scoopy,’ she has this Carole Lombard quality about her … she got Kelli right away, though.”

Cardellini did all the homework required of an actor taking on such a complicated and, in some ways, disagreeable character. Like Johnson, she interviewed women who served in the National Guard and other branches of the military. Among the things she observed is the difference between how full- and part-time soldiers are treated upon their return from overseas.

“Even if women aren’t supposed to be on the front lines, they can come back just as messed up as a male soldier,” Cardellini argues. “In the National Guard, they’re expected to sink right back into old patterns. Her husband and boss weren’t being unreasonable in their expectations, but there was no one who understood what she was going through psychologically.

“The medical staffs in the regular branches of the military have far more experience dealing with post-traumatic shock and other issues. Except for the guy in AA, no one could relate to her depression.”

The 36-year-old San Francisco native says that she didn’t draw much on her experiences on “ER,” even though their characters could very well be sisters.

“I based Kelli on the people I met,” says Cardellini, who’s expecting her first child this month. “She and Samantha are similar only in that they’re working-class women … survivors … just trying to get by. Otherwise, their expectations are different.

“Kelli’s stuck. She wanted to be back in her own life, but was too deeply impacted by what she saw.”

Neither does it ease the veterans’ transition to normalcy to learn how little people in civilian life care about their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from news about soldiers being killed by roadside bombs, Cardellini points out, “No one wants to know what’s going on over there. They’re insulated.”

Clearly, it’s an issue the candidates for president have attempted to avoid, as well.  The long-dead activist, Saul Alinsky, has been paid more attention in the debates than the stalemate in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the public’s indifference has resulted in underwhelming box-office results for movies based on the war.

“The response I got from producers was very cautionary,” Johnson stressed. “Our project was met with discouragement, mostly. I don’t think it was targeted specifically at ‘Return,’ however.”

Johnson hopes that mostly positive reviews the picture – included in last year’s Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes — was accorded on opening day, in Los Angeles and New York, will encourage wider distribution. For those living in arthouse-deprived cities, “Return” will become available on iTunes and video-on –demand outlets later this month.

Johnson could have ended “Return” in any number of clichéd ways, including suicide or mass murder. Instead, she devised a scenario that holds several satisfying surprises, all consistent with the respect she’s shown to her characters and women after which they were modeled. It’s possible that viewers will come away from “Return” wondering how many other Kellies have been permanently damaged for the sake of America’s honor and Halliburton’s bottom line. — Gary Dretzka

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “For Veterans, The Point Of No ‘Return’ Often Can Be Found At Home”

  1. yancyskancy says:

    Great to see Cardellini get a lead role, and it sounds like she makes the most of it — hardly a surprise to those of us who first fell in love with her as Lindsay Weir on the great “Freaks and Geeks.”

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon