#20 — Linda Cardellini as Kelli in Return (Liza Johnson, 2011)
In modern cinematic considerations of war, there is a broad agreement that the emotional aftermath when a soldier reached the homeland is just a brutal and devastating as anything that might have happened when they were deployed. Even a film as supposedly jingoistic and fully enamored with battlefield conquest as the ultimate in heroism as American Sniper needs to acknowledge that the military man whose prowess with a rifle is a such that he get deadly superlatives affixed to his name is going to win up staring blankly at a blank television screen when he’s once again become a private citizen. Some of this is undoubtedly attributable to advancing knowledge and corresponding destigmatization of posttraumatic stress, but a more jaded part of myself wonders if a portion of the worthwhile attention might be inspired by the ease of spinning tense drama out of the situation, in much the same way that mourning parents have become the default for grim serialized detective dramas. Heightened emoting will be acceptable, with only the most churlish questioning the accuracy of the moment.
It is the distance from that safe, secure route that distinguishes Linda Cardellini’s performance in Return. As Kelli, a National Guard soldier returning to her small town existence after a tour overseas, Cardellini resists any impulse to signal a tremulous, wounded soul, bedazzled by the capitalistic robustness of the United States. She’s not primed to go off, nor does she give any indication that she’s carrying some deep, dark secret. Kelli’s only response to speculation that she must have had it tough over there is a sincere acknowledgement that it was far worse for others. By all indications, this isn’t false humility or even deflection. Kelli worked at the base hospital, concentrating on keeping supplies stocked, a safe distance from the nerve-wracking duty depicted in The Hurt Locker. If part of what writer-director is positing is that wartime military service exacts a toll on every single person who serves, no matter how safe their task may, then the film is also wise enough to suggest there are varying levels of damage. In the context of a single life, however, those differentiations don’t wipe away the pain.
Without the build to a grueling breakdown scene, Return is reliant on the performance of Cardellini for its impact. She delivers beautifully, largely through carefully calibrating her work to suit the more low-key tragedy. As she tries to settle back into her mundane life, defined the middle class necessities of a husband, kids, and mindlessly straightforward job, the boredom shows, drifting over Cardellini’s eyes like a mountain mist coming down. She’s no adrenaline junkie, but there’s a strong sense that even in her low-level appointment with the National Guard, there was a purpose to her daily existence that her circumstances at home will never meet. The blandness of Kelli’s life nags at her, Cardellini gently showing the ways the dissatisfaction slowly builds, even getting at the guilt and other conflicting sensations of not wanting something that is supposed to be her reward. There’s a sad questing in her eyes, as if she’s in the process of giving up on a version of the American Dream that maybe never made much sense to her to begin with.
It is a performance of great subtlety, scored by the catharsis that refuses to come. In Cardellini’s acting, the withdrawn nature of Kelli is no result of trauma. Instead, it’s a state of being, potentially triggered by her service, but more likely there all along and only noticed by her loved ones when she didn’t fit into their thickly-rendered expectations of how a returning veteran is supposed to act. She doesn’t push back as much as she slumps away from conflict, including the one that settles inside her own soul. Cardellini could have easily drawn on pathos to flesh out the character, but she opts for a trickier, more understated truth. She miraculously finds her way into a being that is impenetrable by design and makes her inner uncertainty piercingly present.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain in Talk Radio