As I work and live (three days a week) in one of the better art movie cities in the world — NYC — and because my apartment and office are literally behind the Museum of Modern Art and a 15 minute walk from Lincoln Center, I paid my money and joined the MoMA and Lincoln Center Film Societies (2 separate memberships) with the intention of taking full advantage of their incredible independent and art movie offerings in the evenings. Two weeks ago the Lincoln ran a retrospective of Bela Tarr’s work, including a Superbowl Sunday viewing of the seven-hour wonder, Satantango. I hoped to see his latest, and allegedly final film, The Turin Horse, but it is only being shown at 2:50 pm these days and I can’t break away from work.
Keep in mind that nearly all of the art film I’ve seen over the years has been on monitors and televisions and not the big screens they were shot for by their directors. The opportunity to see some of this work in a theater is too good to pass up.
I joined the museum’s film society online, paid an extra fee for the film membership, and received a spiffy membership card with a picture of Dave the Astronaut from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I check the film society schedule and book a free ticket online and then collect it at the film desk on 53rd St. for nothing more than a $1 handling fee. I haven’t paid $1 for a flick since college when the competing film societies on the Yale campus engaged in a shooting war for audiences.
The heroine, Kelli, played with quiet, stunned anger by Linda Cardenelli (Freaks and Geeks), returns to her husband and two children after a deployment with the National Guard to some unnamed warzone. Hair tied into a severe military knot, she stands bewildered in an American airport looking for a familiar face until she’s startled by a sudden hug from her daughter. Her husband, a plumber played by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) has been minding the children and holding things together while she was overseas. Awkward hugs, smiles, laughs, homecoming parties and sex all follow in predictable course, but throughout Kelli is alienated, a stranger trying to ease back into familiar surroundings.
The film is set in some nondescript upstate mill town, all patched potholes and plywood windowed carpet stores, brake shops and abandoned factories. Around it all is a gorgeous fall season of changing leaves tossed by sussurating winds, distant purple hills and placid lakes. The radio and television is always blaring something banal — callers who ate 15 cupcakes, blooper videos of old ladies slipping and falling — and Kelli’s job stapling together heating ducts is waiting for her, the same job she’s held for 12 years.
She goes on a bender, quits the job, discovers the husband cheating, and gets arrested for drunk driving. Husband moves out, takes the kids, and she ends up in a court ordered rehab where she meets silver-haired Mad Man John Slattery, a salty substance abusing fellow vet who empathizes with her and takes her to his Waldenesque cabin in the woods for lovemaking on the couch and the offer of a line of ground up hillbilly heroin.
The Return is a grim, careful film with a few flashes of thin lipped humor. There were a lot of parallels to my favorite French-Belgium realists, the Dardenne Brothers, specialists in the tedium-and-quiet-despair-in-a-northern-town genre. The cinematography by Anne Etheridge is remarkable and adores the autumn color contrast with the dingy town.
A thoughtful film about the American decline, the loss of uphill traction by the middle class, and the lonely fight of one soldier against opponents she can’t see.