Coming Home (1978)

Dir. Hal Ashby. Starring Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern

There’s a “Just So” story I encountered for the first time when I was a little boy. It was depicted in 3-D comic book form and came with the requisite glasses. (I may be making this up, but I’m pretty sure it came from a fast food joint, which, if so, time has most definitely changed.) It’s the story of the elephant who, despite the advice of everyone he knows, gets a little too close to the great, green, greasy Limpopo River and nearly gets eaten by a crocodile. Mercifully, he only gets a trunk this way as opposed to meeting his demise.

I assume something similar happened to Bruce Dern when he was a kid, because I am totally unable to think of another way he could have gotten such a nose.

It’s such an essential part of his persona as an actor, that nose, because it’s what makes Bruce Dern recognizable, and it gives him this malice and vigilance and suspicion. The way that it folds in at the tip, like someone made his nose out of Silly Putty and couldn’t resist squeezing the end of it between their thumbs, makes him constantly appear to be sniffing something out. Even in the beginning of the movie when he is a fairly uncomplicated man, just a captain in the Marine Corps off to ‘Nam, he seems suspicious and conniving. Bob Hyde seems invested in his marriage to Sally (Fonda), but in stereotypical words, somehow missing the points she tries to make. She gives him a ring to symbolize their love; he turns it into a good luck charm. At the officers’ club, he has much more to say to other men, or to officers’ wives; Sally, who is a repository of badly-timed homey wisdom, tells someone later on that “if the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, they’d have issued you one.” The film doesn’t go out of its way to make Bob likable in the early going, and yet he’s not supposed to be despicable either. He’s a soldier, an active-duty career soldier who wants to go to war in 1968. To the film’s stakeholders (like director, Hal Ashby, the perpetual hippie, or star “Hanoi Jane” Fonda), that codes itself. In our eyes, if we’re really fair about it, Bob doesn’t seem to be such a bad guy, at least not the way that we code “bad guy.” We’re given no signs that he is unfaithful, or even that he is inattentive by the standards of the time period or by the standards of his job. He’s controlling and brusque and difficult to get close to, but something about that must have worked for Sally.

What makes Bob sympathetic – a word that is not often applied to Bruce Dern in film, as far as I can tell – becomes clear in Hong Kong. Bob and Sally’s reunions are always a little cringey. Think of being ordered to Hong Kong for a week of your husband’s R&R, which is more like a “duty calls” moment for military wife Sally. He is upset with her for volunteering at the VA hospital; he doesn’t like the idea of her “working” while he’s gone, but seems to have given no thought to what she’s supposed to do instead. Or think about the way that Bob reacts to Sally’s teased-out hair when he comes home after being wounded. (He is surprisingly okay with the little coupe that Sally’s bought in his absence.) While in Hong Kong, it’s worse. We learn that Bob has a redeeming quality after all, a quality which we’d value in anyone who is not a soldier. He doesn’t like violence. He doesn’t like killing people.

In some village in Vietnam, after a pile of people have been killed, some keen young fellow suggests decapitating the corpses and putting the heads on sticks. This is a scene relayed to us in a sweet little hotel room in Hong Kong; mercifully we are saved a literal flashback which would all but ruin the drama of this scene. Bob has no interest in putting heads on sticks. He didn’t get into the Marine Corps for that. His reasons for getting into the Marines at all are a little vague. But he’s not brutal; in the words of a different Vietnam retrospective, he does not “lust for war.” As Sally rubs lotion into his back, he mutters something along the lines of, Is this how you do it for the cripples, too? It’s unspeakably cruel, and Ashby lets it sink in like the lotion itself. His camera is so unfailingly natural, equally comfortable in close-ups and from distance, and it usually moves enough to make us appreciate the white noise of watching people organically. In this case, the room is totally visible, and we sit there and stare at him lying facedown, with her on top of him, neither one of them able to acknowledge the other. The camera stays for a few seconds, much longer than it stays on anything else in the entire film, or maybe that’s only because no other scene causes this much incredible discomfort.

Even after this, I don’t think we’re meant to hate or even dislike Bob. I know I didn’t. I hated that he was being so unkind to someone who was obviously trying to be as kind to him as he knew how, but it’s not so different from the way that Luke (Voight) treats everyone as he tries to get used to not having working legs. Once he gets into a wheelchair, there’s a distinct change in Luke. His humor, as black and cutting as ever, no longer needs to take jabs at anyone else. He can be a little kinder. In short, he has mobility and freedom which make all the difference; Bob has to go back to Vietnam. He has no mobility and no freedom, only some number of months left where bright-eyed kids from Camp Lejeune come up to him and say, “Hey, let’s hack up some corpses.”

Ashby has such a way with beaches. (You can see him in the car which precisely matches the Hydes’ towards the end of the film.) In the scene where Sally climbs onto Luke’s lap – a scene which, I admit, Berkeley Breathed’s Cutter John has sort of ruined for me – the star of that scene is the golden sand and the perfectly blue water coming up to the shore. Even the setting of the house that Sally rents out, not far from the water, just looks like a beach house, and it seems to make Bob physically uncomfortable; he has no idea how one lives in a place that relaxed. At any rate, Ashby can make a beach feel like the warmest, safest place in the world, but something about the way he shoots Dern as he takes his dress uniform off – from the water, as opposed to looking out on it – makes the beach almost as sad and menacing as Dern himself. He swims into the ocean totally naked, jogging out with the same deliberateness that he jogged around the asphalt in the film’s opening credits. It’s possible that this is another filmic baptism. I prefer to think of it as another filmic suicide. Luke connected wherever he could, latching on – even sarcastically – with someone like Sally. Bob threatens the people around them with a gun. Dern somehow manages to make a trained killer sympathetic, helpless. It is a stunning performance in a film that is better known for its star power.

Coming Home will inevitably be compared with The Deer Hunter. Both are stories of the Vietnam War, and both take a real interest in what it’s like stateside while the war is going on. The Deer Hunter is operatic, and Coming Home intimate, so intimate that long stretches of the movie almost seem not to matter very much. But what attracts me to Coming Home over The Deer Hunter, which admittedly moved me far more when I watched it the first time, is that Coming Home has a much more powerful notion of responsibility.

There’s a role-playing board game called Fiasco that I’m very fond of, and when I was in college, once we discovered it, my friends and I would play a game every couple of weeks. Frequently we would talk or roll ourselves into such disgusting, dire situations that someone would ask, “How did this happen?” The rest would respond, in one voice, “We brought it upon ourselves.” The Deer Hunter is obsessed with this question of “How did this happen?” With Luke’s voice rolling over the rolling ocean, as Bob swims himself into oblivion, it could not be more obvious that the principals brought it upon themselves.

 

 

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