Season 1 tells the story of a facility in Tampa, where Julia is a therapist, that promises to help war veterans overcome PTSD and adjust to civilian life.

Homecoming review Julia Roberts shines in this mind-bending new Amazon Prime drama
Flix Amazon Prime Sunday, November 25, 2018 - 12:57

Movies and television shows that question the world we see around us or question our definitions of reality itself have long been popular in Hollywood. From the pathbreaking Twilight Zone directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s to more recent movies like Truman Show, Shutter Island, Gone Girl and Inception to the iconic web series Black Mirror, psychological dramas and thrillers have always been a popular genre. In a post 9/11 world, the effects of the ‘war on terror’, started by America by sending its forces into Afghanistan and Iraq, have also become a popular source of stories. Shows like Homeland, Shooter and Bodyguard have highlighted the plight of soldiers returning home and the physical and mental toll a senseless battle have taken on them.

Homecoming, an Amazon Prime original, is based on a popular podcast of the same name. Written by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, who also created the podcast, and directed by Sam Esmail, Season 1’s 10 episodes tell the story of a facility in Tampa that promises to help war veterans overcome PTSD and adjust to civilian life. Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is a therapist there, but also ostensibly the one in charge of making sure the program fulfils its objective. As a part of her job, Heidi meets a young soldier Walter Cruz (Stephan James) who has just returned to America and is sincerely invested in ‘getting better’.

While things seem all calm and spa-like on the face of it, it’s not hard to see that there is something that doesn’t quite add up at Homecoming. Heidi’s boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale) barks orders in a tone that’s condescending, aggressive and threatening. Though he never shows up himself, he micromanages every detail while obsessing rather tellingly over data, instead of the soldiers’ health. There is also Shrier (Jeremy Allen White), Walter’s fellow soldier who serves as a narrative device, pointing us towards the questions the makers want us to ask. Is the facility actually in Florida, why is no one else around, why are they never allowed to leave the premises and what’s in the food that’s being given to them?

While Heidi and Walter’s sessions are set in the present, the show’s non-linear narrative is established quickly with a leap into the future where Heidi is now a waitress in a dead-end job. When a low-level government employee Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) investigating a complaint against the Homecoming programme arrives at her doorstep with questions about her role there, she can’t seem to give him any answers. Is she simply being evasive or has she escaped from something terrible that happened there? If she remembers working there, how has she forgotten everything else? Unable to get answers from Heidi, Thomas then tracks down Colin, who works at Geist, a company that makes juices and cleaning solutions. Why were they involved in a military rehabilitation programme? What is Colin trying to hide and what happened in the four years between the two timelines? The show slowly builds up layers of mystery as it moves between the present and future, asking questions and leaving us to decipher the answers.

While the show is set in 2018 and 2022, the makers use vintage references for the treatment for the show. The background score is inspired heavily by music from old thrillers as are the sets and costumes. It’s a brilliant way to set Homecoming apart from its contemporary shows and give it that classic conspiracy theory film atmosphere while keeping it completely relevant through the issues it tackles. Another stroke of genius is using two different aspect ratios to differentiate between the present and the future. While the present is filmed in a widescreen format, the future is seen through a 1:1 square that looks like the view from a smartphone. It’s a restricted view, that never really tells the whole story, and leaves you feeling just a tad uncomfortable.

Director Sam Esmail is clearly a Hitchcock fan as well, using elements like staircases and the famous dolly zoom from the director’s popular movie Vertigo at crucial junctures in the show. Other great touches include Thomas’s magnetic framed glasses that split and reattach at the bridge, illustrating his efforts at putting the puzzle together or joining the real and retold versions of what happened, and a goldfish tank where the fish are fed and observed in captivity quite like the soldiers in the facility.

The well-structured script and taut direction is ably supported by a brilliant cast of actors. Julia Roberts is excellent as the conflicted but sincere Heidi, whose best intentions yield disastrous consequences. She suppresses all her movie star charisma and really sinks her teeth into this role that demands complete ordinariness. Even her iconic smile that has bedazzled the world for years is carefully used in moments that render it creepy and disconcerting. She is ably supported by Stephan James whose performance is deceptively effortless as the affable Walter. Cannavale is convincingly unnerving and obnoxious as Colin, while Whigham brings a quiet sincerity to his underdog role as a self-professed cog in the wheel.

Homecoming makes a powerful anti-war and anti-establishment comment, painting the entire exercise of fighting terrorism as an unholy nexus between a self-serving government and the private sector. As they attempt to bring peace and ‘civilisation’ to countries thousands of miles away, the establishment in the world’s most powerful country is losing its grip on humanity, turning people’s lives into political or profitable opportunities. As citizens of the digital age, we live in an era where social media, fake news and free access to personal data has heavily distorted our perspective of reality, and forced us question the intentions of governments and wealthy corporates. Homecoming uses this insight to question how we create and interpret reality, and stresses the importance of making real human connections in an increasingly self-involved world.

Also read: From angry young man in films to politician: Rebel Star Ambareesh's life in pics

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