Based, remarkably, on a podcast, Amazon Prime’s Homecoming is another feather in the cap for Sam Esmail, creator of the striking science fiction series Mr. Robot. Here he brings his keen directorial eye for seventies-style conspiracy thrillers to an unsettling tale of dark contemporary mystery. Bouncing back and forth through time, it chronicles the life of Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a counselor for the Homecoming Transitional Support Center. The center is a government-contracted facility dedicated to helping military veterans reassimilate to life in the U.S. after their tours of duty overseas. Despite the officious management style of her boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale), Heidi is fully committed to her job, in which she helps troubled returning soldiers like Walter Cruz (Stephan James) get used to domestic life after traumatic experiences in foreign war zones. Somewhere along the way, though, Heidi’s career takes a turn; four years later, she’s left Homecoming and is working as a waitress in her home town, where she lives with her mother (Sissy Spacek). When an unassuming representative the Department of Defense named Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) shows up asking questions, Heidi thinks back to her experiences at Homecoming, and gradually starts to gain an unnerving new understanding of what exactly went on there.
Anchored by Roberts’ compelling central performance, Homecoming is a gripping psychological thriller that conjures an earlier era of filmmaking. Although its subject matter is quite topical and current, the craftsmanship is classic. In light of the dialogue-driven nature of the story—the series’ podcast origins definitely shine through—Esmail brings a striking visual sensibility to the series, reminiscent of late Hitchcock or early John Frankenheimer. The show possesses a terrific slow-building intrigue, meticulous shot composition, and an unsettling atmosphere that only gains in power as Heidi’s comprehension grows. Roberts provides a well rounded, accessible viewpoint onto this dark world, while Cannavale delivers his usual exceptional brand of fast-talking, slimy villainy. Particularly appealing here, though, is Whigham, an actor frequently cast in tough-talking, authoritarian roles. Here, he portrays an earnest, hard-working, shlubby bureaucrat who becomes an unexpectedly heroic wrench in the world’s uncaring works. The season burns along quickly, leaving me anxious for more; it’s another superb genre-bending addition to Esmail’s body of work.