The Amazon series gives Julia Roberts her trickiest role(s) in years

By Darren Franich
October 22, 2018 at 02:14 PM EDT
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The best way to test any director is to give them a scene where two people talk in a room. We’ve bred a generation of technocrat filmmakers, skilled in peddling expensive set pieces and you-are-there viscerality. Consider, like, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, all meticulous drumbeat editing, camerawork so fluid it’s biological, a rippling soundtrack that deserves to be called an “audioscape.” It’s the definition of “meticulous,” and it’s set in a meticulous version of the 1960s where nobody ever says anything interesting. Meanwhile, there have never been so many auteurs with so many profound ideas about how to make fighting look real cool. But capturing the fine art of conversation requires a bigger bag of tricks, or the kind of skill set we shouldn’t have to consider old-fashioned.

Before working on Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, Sam Esmail created Mr. Robot, and turned the USA network drama into a showcase for his stylistic evolution. He’s directed 25 of its 32-so-far episodes. The show’s had ups, downs, secret parents, solid karaoke. But watching Esmail develop his sensibility has been one of the great cinephiliac joys this TV decade. Last year he high-watered with a mesmerizing realtime action hour, a stealth-mode adventure through an apocalyptic office building shot in a phonily captivating single-take.

Amazon Studios

Homecoming is something else. The series hums with paranoia and jangly-nerve thrills, with a Roboty distrust of practically everything. Its debut season runs ten episodes, and Esmail directs the living hell out of all of them. But the material, adapted by creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz from their own hit podcast, is essentially a sequence of one-on-one conversations, different interrogators asking different questions to people who’d don’t want to give any answers. (Full disclosure: I worked with Horowitz last decade at McSweeney’s Publishing, though if you consider that a potential bias, I’ll confess I had no clue he’d created a successful podcast.) Homecoming is a mystery, one that’s nigh-impossible to discuss without spoiling the fun. And Esmail finds visual strategies brainteasing you towards perpetual uneasiness. Dialogue flows in eerie close-ups, with occasional god’s-eye-view overhead shots. A job interview gets filmed like a Satanic inquisition. Whenever two people talk to each other, one person is lying, and that’s an optimistic estimate.

The series begins with army veteran Walter Cruz (Stephan James) walking into the office of Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a counselor who works for Homecoming, a company dedicated to helping soldiers readjust from traumatic experiences. They speak about Walter’s days at war. Their conversation is medicinal, maybe. Or maybe not. The Homecoming facility is brand new, a corporate office complex reconstructed into a rehab dorm. Heidi’s coworker Craig (Alex Karpovsky) has the soldiers role-playing improv games. Heidi’s boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale) calls her hourly, demanding elusive data. Esmail films their phoners in split screen, their voices audio-fuzzed like we’re hearing a recording of their conversation. (Who else is listening?)

Something very strange is happening. Or rather: “Was happening.” The first episode flashes forward to another timeline, a dark future for Heidi’s professional prospects. Now she’s a waitress in a crab shack-looking diner next to the world’s grittiest marina.

At Homecoming, Heidi presented as a white-collarized executive citizen, her desk OCD clean. How’d she wind up pouring coffee back in her hometown? That’s one question Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a Department of Defense employee, might want to ask her. Carrasco shows up to the diner on an official inquiry about Homecoming, dropping the name “Walter Cruz.” Heidi brushes him off. (What’s she hiding? Who’s she hiding it from?) In the flashforward, the aspect ratio shifts from rectangular widescreen into skinny-square Academy ratio. The drama motivates the gimmickry: The screen squeezes Heidi like walls closing in.

The headline news here is that Roberts is doing a TV show, although “What is TV anymore?” and “What have movies become?” are questions that must torment any movie star minted into fame before cinematic universes and True Detective. Initially, Roberts actually has the least showy part in Homecoming. Cannavale makes an exuberant huckster, the kind of cad who’s either selling you stolen watches or collateralized debt obligations. James (soon to be seen in the buzzy If Beale Street Could Talk) makes Walter our entry-point everyguy, chatty in a sad way, spinning tall tales about weird days in war zones.

And Whigham delivers one of the year’s best TV performances. He’s been a great supporting actor in a little bit of everything, the Marvel universe and the Furious universe, tough enough to play some kind of law enforcement in Fargo and Narcos, genial enough to play the nicest dude in Vice Principals. Certain elements of the twisty plot nearly turn Homecoming into the long-overdue Shea Whigham star vehicle, though one marvel of his performance is how calm it is, how palpably he renders thoughtful confusion and clerk-ish obsession.

Roberts reveals herself more as Homecoming deepens our understanding of Heidi’s curious position. It’s very nearly a dual role, with a lot of ambiguous seemses asterisking her every move. Past Heidi seems to unfurl her company’s mysterious plot. Future Heidi seems to be hiding from enigmas we can’t quite grasp. (Both Heidis wear the same terrible wig, with frumpcore bangs that seem targeted toward normalizing Roberts’ star power.) Behind her cool exterior, Heidi is desperate, a last-chancer who feels just about left behind by the world. Roberts catches weird strains of hopefulness and malevolence, and even that weird-sounding dissonance doesn’t come close to what the later episodes require her to do. It turns into her most interesting role in a long time, quieter in its devastation than anything she’s played since 2004’s acidic Closer.

This is one of those shows where you realize immediately that a lot of truth is getting held back. It’s also the kind of show where, once all the questions are answered, some truths are more convincing than others. But Homecoming finds a good balance between deepening characters and double-reverse cliffhangers. Alongside the deepening paranoia, there are playful tonal shifts, flirtation, clever song choices, bird humor. We’re miles from the terminal bleakness of recent TV mysteries like HBO’s mournful Sharp Objects or Netflix’s grimmest-Germans-ever Dark. And every Homecoming episode’s roughly half an hour, a carb-free runtime that feels especially gratifying after recent trends in unedited streaming slogs.

Amazon has already ordered a second season. I mean it as a huge compliment that, after watching the season finale, I have absolutely no goddamn idea what the hell season 2 could possibly look like. Some of the later plot turns feel contrived, narrative dominoes collapsing together with too-easy simplicity. There’s an important revelation requiring one character to randomly spot another character in a window across a courtyard. But there’s also  serious purpose hiding here. The tale Horowitz and Bloomberg unspool ripples with anger over public-private malfeasance, satiric fear of our dystopian present, straightforward sadness over how society treats our emotionally wounded warriors. I assume some or all of that was present in the original podcast, which I’ve not listened to.

What I know is that Esmail has worked with the creators to reconceive their audio adventure as a visual delight, full of smart performances and lingering unease. For all its Hitchcock-y camera angles and Lost-y double-reverse plot twists, Homecoming is an all-too human freakout. One of the scariest single images I’ve seen on TV this year is just a late-season close-up on James’ smiling face. A-

The complete first season of Homecoming launches on November 2 on Amazon Prime.

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