Julia Roberts’ Homecoming on Amazon Prime Weaves Uneven Brilliance

A project that has forced Julia Roberts out of hermitage automatically raises expectations. But does her latest, Homecoming, which marks her debut in digital entertainment, live up to it?

The 10-episode thriller on Amazon Prime, directed by Sam Esmail (of Mr Robot fame) and co-starring Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James and Shea Whigham, revolves around a small-town waitress Heidi Bergman (Roberts). Only Bergman was earlier a high-profile counsellor at Geist, a private company that along with producing washing powders and drain cleaners, also helps soldiers transition into civilian life. Bergman however, doesn’t remember anything about her job. When a stray complaint against the company troubles calm waters, a cesspool of memories and betrayals get stirred up.

If you judge by the standards of a thriller, Homecoming is a tad underwhelming. The suspense element works only at a tertiary level and if you are looking for a racy twister, you have hit the wrong button.

What series writers Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz do instead is focus on dystopic inner lives in a world where innocence, trust and honesty - qualities which are conventionally upheld as aspirational and commendable - are playthings in the hands of the powerful.

In many ways in fact, the series, alternating between the past and the present, resonates Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as an unseen, all-powerful and ruthless corporate god plays with his humans - and what makes them human - for unknowable ends.

A still from Homecoming

The primal emotion of the series is that of searing disconnect.

As the principal characters skid around the play board of their lives trying to make sense of what had or is happening to them, almost all of them come across as islands tossing in the sea of humanity around them. They talk to each other and sometimes connect, but a sense of all-pervasive dissociation and disquiet is never too far.

Whether it is Heidi Bergman who doesn’t know who she is, the slick-tongued Colin Belfast (Cannavale) who seems to run the show, or the conscientious Thomas Carrasco (Whigham), a government employee who doggedly goes about his job knowing well he has very little actual agency - the characters exist in an emotional vacuum.

Julia Roberts and Bobby Cannavale in Homecoming.

I especially loved Esmail’s construction of this alone-ness and loneliness on screen, done as much through meticulously fleshed out characters as clever camera work. Note the repeated top shots, always watching - like the third eye - as people go about their daily business in honeycomb-esque constructions.

Homecoming also turns the lens on an increasingly scrutinising and de-humanising state. What is supposed to nurture and enrich takes on the guise of benevolence to squeeze out one’s very life-force. Unquestioning conformation is the order of the day and if you resist, there are always the weapons of “paranoia” and “mental imbalance”. In short, you either eat or be eaten - it’s as simple as that. Rings some bells?

As far as standout performances go, Roberts, with her listening face, is just right as Heidi Bergman. But does she leave you feeling wowed? Not really.

She hits all the right notes but doesn’t quite become superlative. It’s rather Whigham who leaves a lasting impression as the conscientious man in a thankless job. Like Roberts, his is a listening character, but the intensity he brings to the table with very little weaponry is remarkable.

Shea Whigham in Homecoming

All said and done, Homecoming is uneven with quite a few brilliantly crafted scenes that light up the mostly flat narrative. It doesn’t blow you away. But it is its notes of poignancy that eventually nestle in an unsuspecting corner of your brain to pose some niggling questions.

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