It’s easy to why Jane Fonda’s character Sally, a married woman, embarks on an extramarital affair with a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, Luke (Jon Voight), if you look at her relationship with her army officer husband, Bob (Bruce Dern), before he leaves for Nam for his tour of duty. The clues are all there. What we perceive as an ideal marriage is just an illusion – an illusion which this couple sells us in the film’s opening scenes. Or maybe it’s she who believes in this illusion more than him, and is more interested in selling it to us. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home is an unconventional film, just like any other film of his.
We are led to believe that there are comfort and security in Bob and Sally’s relationship, but we don’t really feel it. The most obvious giveaway is the way they make love – quick, passionless and unsatisfying (for her, obviously). When she drops Bob at the airport, she gives him a parting gift: a ring; but he doesn’t have anything for her. This could be another clue. Her first encounter with Luke is not a pleasant one, because she literally crashes into him in a hospital corridor, resulting in an extremely awkward and embarrassing situation involving his colostomy bag. It’s a classic case of the worst first impression.
But it soon becomes apparent that she doesn’t make a deal out of it as she is at the veterans’ hospital as a volunteer, prepared to deal with all kinds of ugliness. And Luke does make a very ugly scene after that. He throws a tantrum so bad that the nurses have to restrain him and sedate him. For any other woman – well, at least most of them – this would be a turn-off. But something about him strikes her fancy. Suffice to say that a couple of meetings later, they make a strong connection – it turns out they knew each other in high school – and later she invites him to her home.
Meanwhile, she bonds with another army wife just like her and moves into her residence as a paying guest. This woman has a mentally unstable brother undergoing treatment at the same hospital. Ashby takes us through a tour of the hospital and introduces us to its inhabitants, the majority of them in the same pitiful condition as Luke, crippled in various ways and confined to wheelchairs, beds and struggling with intense frustration, anger, sadness and depression. When they get together to play music, poker and chess, it’s also an opportunity to vent.
During an earlier conversation with Sally, Luke brings up the possibility of Bob returning home in a body bag, and although she seems slightly perturbed by that thought, she doesn’t seem to care very much. After she invites Luke over, they have a real, deep and meaningful conversation for the first time. I’ve never seen this side of Voight and Fonda before. It’s one of Voight’s finest performances aside from Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance. And Fonda plays Sally as a tender, caring, nurturing and vulnerable woman. She is not a typical army wife and this is how she wants others to see her.
She finally knows what a genuinely passionate love affair looks like when she is with Luke. When they finally make love, it’s intense, passionate and deeply fulfilling for her. “This never happened to me before”, she tells him. Watching Fonda, I was reminded of Debra Winger in The Officer and a Gentleman. They both have similar character traits. If the two of them met, I imagine they would get along like a house on fire. Even though Bob leaves for Nam, Ashby’s camera doesn’t follow him there. One imagines that Bob, post-Vietnam, is going to be bad news once he finds out about this. However, I must admit, without giving anything away, that I’m not really sure if I liked how the film ended.
The film puts forth its anti-war sentiments without being overly preachy. Ashby was a man who was always against the system. The film won three Academy Awards, for Best Actor (Voight), Best Actress (Fonda) and Best Screenplay. It has one of the best soundtracks, with Ashby using songs – all great selections, by the way – without any restraint. Most of these belong to the Rolling Stones, and until I came across this film, I was under the impression that no other director had used their songs in such a spontaneous manner as Martin Scorsese. Ashby’s inclusion of a Stones song in nearly every scene is similar to Scorsese’s usage of them in Goodfellas or Casino. I’m guessing Ashby is one of his influential filmmakers. He has to be.