Return, Liza Johnson’s new film (opening today), is that proverbial small canvas upon which huge themes are projected. Linda Cardelinni plays a returning Iraq vet whose half-hearted attempt to return to normal rapidly unravels, sending her life spinning out of control. No help at all is her doofy husband  (Michael Shannon), who gives her about three seconds to hit the ground running before throwing her over for a younger Jezebel from the used car lot. She briefly seeks refuge in the arms of a fellow vet (John Slattery) but loses interest when his morning ritual turns out to involve snorting lines of oxycontin. She is about to make a truly drastic choice (the type that makes you this week’s topic on the Investigation Discovery channel), when she stops herself. But before she can truly turn her life around, the film’s title takes on a whole new meaning.

When I say this film is small, I mean small. There are very few characters in the film besides those principles I named. The factory where Cardellini works seems to employ the boss and one other worker. We spend most of our time in very intimate interiors, with lots and lots of close-ups (at one point we’re with plumber Shannon under the sink). The performances are all done in tiny, tiny strokes (and the cast is terrific). Even the score consists of a single acoustic guitar.

And the events here are seemingly microscopic in the scheme of things – though not for the characters involved. After a couple of unfortunate lapses in judgment, Cardellini’s character’s lost her driver’s license, her husband, and custody of her children in what seems like nothing flat. The villain of the piece, it seems to me, is her husband, who is admirably drawn in shades of grey by Johnson and Shannon: he kind of loves his wife, but not so much that he couldn’t wait a year before stepping out with some other woman, and not so much that he can ride out her period of adjustment for any length of time.

This same kind of subtlety informs the whole movie. For example, we never do truly learn what’s haunting Cardellini’s character. She downplays her experiences in the war, repeatedly saying “A lot of people had it worse off than me”. Given her reluctance to resume things with her husband, it’s possible she was raped (although she’s all too happy to crawl into the sack with a couple of lowlifes). But she does say that she saw a lot of dead and maimed bodies in the hospital where she worked…and actually that’s more than enough. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone around to tell her that. She’s completely alone in this crappy, dead, practically deserted town.

One worries that a little film like this, with its little title, and its little story about ordinary people will fall through the cracks of this noisy, obvious, sledgehammer-driven culture. In a time of crisis, we seem bound and determined to avoid what’s actually going on around us, like a bunch of sleepwalkers. A few months ago I saw Brian de Palma’s Redacted, easily one of his best and most important films. When he made it (2007), he couldn’t get anyone to distribute it.  BRIAN DE PALMA. Sometimes you just want to take 300 million people by the shoulders and shake them.

Return opens today: go here for locations and showtimes.

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