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Coming Home (1978)
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by MP Bartley

"Domestic warfare."
4 stars

Labelling a film 'worthy' always feels like a backhanded compliment.

And quite often, it is; and I think that's mainly because it gets followed up with '...but dull', as if a film that is quiet and understated can't be powerful and dramatic without ripping up trees and bellowing to the heavens. Coming Home goes some way to disproving that.

After her husband, Bob (Bruce Dern) is shipped off to Vietnam, Sally (Jane Fonda) takes a voluntary hospital in a vets hospital, aiding the men who have returned from the conflict in various states of paralysis. One such man is Luke Martin (Jon Voight) an ex-sergeant now confined to a wheelchair and full of bitterness to his condition and in no mood to fit into the genteel life of the hospital. He and Sally realise they went to the same school at the same time, and despite his condition and her devotion to Bob, soon the two of them are caught up in a passionate affair.

A Vietnam film without a single bullet being fired, or a single explosion, it's nevertheless a poignant look at how the conflict devastated lives of people both home and abroad. Luke is disillusioned at the war, but also desperately trying to cover up the sorrow buried deep inside him at the things he had to see and do in conflict - the fact that we never get to see what they are, only serves to make them all the more powerful. His attitude is in stark contrast to Bob, itching to get over there and fight and filled with disgust at the people back home clamouring for peace. It's no spoiler to say that eventually Bob does return home a changed man, but the reason for this is a dark and subtle joke at warfare - not everyone can return home as the hero they want to be.

Sally is caught between the two. On the one hand, she wants to support the cause her husband is fighting for (she can't turn the TV off until the national anthem fades), and yet Luke's condition and desire to campaign for peace, shakes her out of her domestic shackles and for once makes her think. It's extremely telling that in one letter to Bob she's scared to tell him that she's taken up a job - clearly Bob is a "do as I say" kind of guy, and her fresh perceptions on life cast a stormcloud in the sky that we know has to break by the end.

If all this sounds a little like a soap opera, then it is. Truth be told, the film is always more interesting in the opening hospital sections and the climatic coming together of the characters when they inevitably clash, than it is when it focuses on the clandestine affair between Sally and Luke, even despite the stark honesty of their first night together when they have to overcome his disability. But as I say, in the right hands, that's not necessarily a problem and Ashby's sensitive direction is always raw and truthful in its understated way, never letting it topple into melodrama.

Voight is rueful, accepting, angry and barely holding himself together as he tries to make sense of his new position in life and you sense that the rage in him comes from the inability to stop others taking the same path that he did. It's a terrific performance and contrasts well to Fonda's own understated work. For a huge star, she has the ability to downplay her beauty and charisma and look almost plain and thoroughly downbeaten at times. The third part of the triangle, Bob, is perhaps the most interesting role - ramrod straight, full of patriotism, but later choking on a mixture of bile and heartbreak. At first it might be hard to watch Dern without smirking at the thought of his role in The 'burbs where he would riff on the role of an angry and disturbed veteran for comic effect, but Dern's fiery performance soon wipes that memory away. These are honest, painful emotions here, not easily dealt with, and the three of them handle the material with an invigorating honesty.

Released in the same year as The Deer Hunter, Cimino's film is the one that still takes the critical plaudits today. Vivid and savage, with De Niro and Walken turning in performances of men lost in the horrific abyss of war, it sees Vietnam as an assault on human nature itself. Coming Home is the polar opposite of that, seeing Vietnam as a destructive influence on one man's life and another man's marriage, and while it may be a quieter approach, it's no less a film for it.

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originally posted: 02/02/12 23:13:19
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User Comments

8/13/09 the dork knight Understated romance. Dern's character is bit out of place. 4 stars
8/09/05 Danny Truly an acting showcase, especially for Voight (who deservedly won the Oscar) 5 stars
12/23/02 Charles Tatum All the acting makes up for the soap operatics 4 stars
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  15-Feb-1978 (R)



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