Amazon’s “Homecoming” is a masterful Hitchcockian thriller for 2018

Julia Roberts is outstanding in the new series by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail.
Julia Roberts is outstanding in the new series by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail.
Image: Amazon Studios
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The thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock have been emulated for decades, with varying levels of success. But a new Amazon series debuting Nov. 2, Homecoming, is an exceedingly rare thing: a Hitchcock homage that actually improves on the master of suspense’s oeuvre. It’s a Hitchcockian thriller that Hitchcock himself probably couldn’t have made.

Directed in its entirety by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Homecoming is based on the 2016 Gimlet Media podcast of the same name by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz about a mysterious US facility that purports to treat soldiers returning home with PTSD. Julia Roberts plays Heidi, a case worker at the facility who takes a special interest in a soldier named Walter Cruz (played by Stephan James, an actor that audiences will see again later this month in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk).

Homecoming plays out over two timelines: One, in 2018, when Walter has just arrived at the facility and Heidi is beginning her sessions with him. The other takes place four years later, when Heidi has left the job and moved in with her mother, while Thomas Carrasco, a low-level cog in the Department of Defense machine (played by Shea Whigham) investigates an old complaint against the facility. The problem is, Heidi doesn’t seem to remember much of what her work entailed just four years earlier.

Bobby Cannavale, who’s almost too perfectly cast as Heidi’s overbearing, slick-talking boss at the facility’s even more mysterious parent company, rounds out the main cast. Everyone involved is superb, especially James, who brings a deeply appealing vulnerability to the role of Walter. But Homecoming is ultimately Roberts’ show, and the movie star holds the entire thing together with a brilliantly shaded performance as Heidi, racked with guilt for reasons she can’t quite explain.

While many, including me, have criticized parts of Mr. Robot for being intentionally inscrutable, I have no such qualms with Homecoming. The plot is winding and detailed but there are no attempts to deliberately confuse the viewer. In fact, it’s the opposite—Esmail goes out of his way to ensure the timelines are distinct. The 2018 timeline, when Heidi is lucid and confident, is shown in a normal 16:9 aspect ratio. When the story switches to 2022—Heidi a forgetful shell of her former self—the frame shrinks to a 4:3 ratio, literally boxing her in. It’s cleverly counterintuitive: Shouldn’t the future timeline be the more technologically advanced one? But as with many things in Homecoming, everything here is just a tad off-kilter and out of focus.

The trick is a bit cute, sure, but it works. In an era when so many shows can feel like a chore to decipher (looking at you, Westworld and Legion), Homecoming is a breath of fresh air that underscores how just a smidge temporal clarity lets the viewers focus more on other more important things, like the characters.

Once Esmail has set his parameters, that’s when he really starts to dive into his Hitchcockian impulses. The similarities are too many to name, but I’ll try anyway: Homecoming is replete with the plot devices known as MacGuffins, a signature of Hitchock’s thrillers. As in many of Hitchock’s films, from Suspicion to Vertigo, Esmail’s series is chiefly about guilt, and the question of whether it can be transferred from one entity to another, or if it’s some intrinsic, immutable thing.

And then there’s the paranoia! Homecoming is so paranoid and constantly aware of some unseen menace at the periphery, that it borders on Lovecraftian. (Don’t worry, there are no giant sea monsters here.) Oh, and there are stairs. Lots of stairs.

amazon homecoming
Image: Amazon Studios

Despite these homages to Hitchcock, it’s clear almost immediately that Esmail is charting a new course.

Made for today’s shorter attention spans, Esmail’s conspiracy thriller is much faster-paced than Hitchock’s films, which appear glacial by comparison. At 30 minutes each, the episodes are perfectly paced, moving forward at a crisp but unhurried rate. Esmail soaks in the conversations and moments he’s supposed to, but the majority of the 10 episodes still manage to crackle with an irresistible kinetic energy despite it largely taking place in one locale (a nondescript corporate park outside of Tampa, Florida, where the only things of note to see her palm trees and pelicans).

And Esmail has done something else that Hitchcock failed over and over again to do—create a genuinely compelling central female character. The Master of Suspense, as skilled as he was, was famously uninterested in exploring the lives of half of the human population. Almost all of his films feature a heroic man as the main character surrounded by a carnival of female tropes—the blonde love interest, the backstabber, the virtuous wife. And for some reason, all his characters had terrible relationships with their mothers.

In Homecoming, Heidi and her mother (Sissy Spacek) squabble as all roommates do, but their relationship is not the primary driver of Heidi’s guilt. Far from it. Walter’s mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is loving and supportive, and destined to become one of the best TV moms in years.

Problematic though it might be when it comes to gender dynamics, Rear Window has long been my favorite Hitchcock film, and it’s probably the one most relevant to Homecoming. L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) starts out innocently enough—confined to his bedroom by outside circumstances, he starts innocuously looking out his window to defeat the crushing boredom. Eventually his new hobby devolves into an obsessive voyeurism, one with which he frantically looks for something to solve, something to fix, as long as it means he can avoid looking inward.

Heidi goes through a similar journey as a counselor at the facility, who’s convinced herself she’s there to help soldiers transition to civilian life, to “fix” their trauma so they can move on. But we know, and Heidi learns, there’s no fixing the past. There’s only reckoning with it.

With a great deal of style and substance, Homecoming is a classic conspiracy thriller in the mold of Hitchcock, thrillingly updated for 2018.