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in Filmmaking
on May 17, 2011

What happened over there?

That’s the question people keep asking Kelli (Linda Cardellini), the protagonist of Liza Johnson’s skillful debut picture, The Return, playing here in Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight section. Her friends, a counselor, a husband — they all assume some trauma occurred during her deployment, some event that has estranged this blue-collar worker, mother of two, and National Reservist from the reassuringly quotidian elements that made up her former life.

The movie begins at the airport as Kelli returns home, but there are no yellow ribbons, and none of the welcoming crowds found in many stateside Iraq War docs. Indeed, as Kelli says to a female friend one night, she worked in re-supply; she wasn’t raped in a Porta Potty or blown up by an IED. In comparison to the very real traumas experienced by others, nothing happened.

Still — and even though we are shown nothing of Kelli’s pre-deployment life — she is a changed woman. She impulsively quits her job, becomes a dangerously distracted parent, gets a DUI and watches her marriage dissolve with a kind of dazed disbelief.

Is it fatigue, or a kind of depression? Or is it possible that it is our world itself that has changed — at least as seen from the wizened perspective of a woman uprooted from her life by American foreign policy and its sad state of perma-war?

This layer of psychological mystery deployed by Johnson is what sets her film apart from other “returning home” films, most of which pin their narratives on the identification — and resolution — of easily identified traumas. With its focus on the ways in which women can slip outside of society’s definition of them, becoming outsiders in the process, I’d compare The Return more to works like Barbara Loden’s Wanda than another Iraq vet movie.

Of her decision to forgo the traditional “traumatized vet” backstory, Johnson said here in Cannes, “As I was working on the script, it was clear that people wanted me to have a flashback to this “Deerhunter moment.” But I really thought that would just shut down the meaning, or possibilities of her character — or attempt to justify her behavior in a way which I don’t think needs to be justified. The world she returns to is banal, there isn’t enough meaningful work, and she doesn’t need to have had someone die in her arms to be able to see that. I thought that her responses have integrity without this narrative impulse to morally justify it.”

Still, Johnson, acknowledges, “nothing” while militarily deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan (the film doesn’t specify which) is still something. “We determined that it is actually very challenging to witness the atmosphere of violence and that kind of crisis,” Johnson says of her preparatory character work with Cardellini. “We believe there was no special incident of hideousness — just an atmosphere of hideousness.”

Was Johnson aware of the dramatic challenges of this approach while conceiving the film? “When I was working on it,” Johnson says, “that’s when I realized how strong that [clearly defined backstory] convention is — both in cinema, and in people’s expectations of other people. Linda and I talked to this psychoanalyst in L.A., who has a counseling system for returning soldiers. She said it can be broadly traumatizing to live in a destroyed world and, if they don’t have an account of ‘this is the moment that traumatized me’, then it’s a big problem for them. There is a big cultural expectation that they can present that story, and yet many people really suffer who don’t have such a story. I think those of us who haven’t been in a war can relate to this. You don’t actually always know what that [past] moment is that is reflected in your present behavior.”

The complexities of this approach were reinforced by one conversation Johnson had with a female vet. “She was involved in a really intense, violent thing [while deployed],” remembers Johnson, “but then she told me that women can’t get PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome] because they are not in combat. She believes that, and it’s not true. Her husband is also a Marine. He has been in more kinetic forms of combat, and he wakes up in the night with more intense syndromes. I thought it was so interesting — here she is living in this super-intense military environment, but still at the end of the day she has to undermine her own experience in relation to her husband to the point where she’d say this form of trauma can’t happen to women. But I met a whole group of women later who will testify the opposite.”

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