Coming Home In The Dark opens on the sort of family vacation I’m not sure exists outside of the movies. The sky is clear, the rural New Zealand scenery whizzing past the windows breathtakingly gorgeous, the car the sort of high end SUV favored by the more practical achievers of solid middle class respectability. There’s some mild squabbling between teenaged twins Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene), over music choices in the backseat, but there’s no real conflict there. This same easy companionability is shared between the kids’ parents, Alan ‘Hoaggie’ Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson), and Jill (Miriama McDowell). Both are career teachers, and they gracefully navigate the typical teenager behavior hiccups, happy to have this chance to take some family time on the coast.
There’s charmingly awkward photo ops, a stop for road trip snacks and a picnic as the sun starts to lower in the sky. Their meal is interrupted by a pair of menacing drifters that happened to cross their path on the isolated trail. Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) initially appears courteous, but there’s a hollowness behind his eyes that even the children recognize as a (barely) veiled threat. The hulking Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) spares little more than monosyllables for the family, helping himself to their food as Mandrake makes short work of relieving them of their valuables. As night falls, the film goes just as dark. What begins as a robbery escalates into something far more bleak, and the pair forces the Hoaganraads to take a night ride in their own stolen car, final destination unknown.
This is director James Ashcroft’s first feature, and Coming Home In The Dark‘s first act is impressively lean, introducing just enough character development to create sympathy, before brutally switching gears with a blunt shock that is best not spoiled. As twilight turns to night, the scenery that had looked majestic in daylight becomes empty and desolate, emphasizing the family’s isolation. What initially flirts with the tenets of survival horror takes shape as more of a home invasion on wheels as Mandrake cooly toys with and humiliates his passengers. He pontificates and philosophizes, forcing them to play games of “I, Spy” and make cocktail party small talk through terrified tears.
There’s something bigger the drifters seem to be getting at, and given the home invasion style structure there’s a limited number of narrative options. Will the film become a gritty revenge tale? Or do we perhaps not know our central characters as well we as we think we do? One of the film’s few flaws is the loss of momentum in the middle section, as it takes its time before firmly placing itself in a more morally ambiguous direction. Coming Home In The Dark turns more darkly contemplative in the back half regarding the cyclical nature of even the most seemingly random acts of violence, retribution and the corrosive effects of long held secrets.
Pacing and plotting wobbles aside, there’s enough craft and care taken here to make the slight second act slump easily forgivable. The direction and cinematography are stunning, making excellent use of the shadowy corners of a confined space, and all of the gradient shades of black within them. The script isn’t an exact adaptation of its literary source material (an Owen Marshall short story), but the tone feels true to the original text.
The expansions made to the primary antagonists’ motivations echo real life events regarding institutional abuse in New Zealand add conceptual richness without losing the source material’s mood of pared down despair. There is plenty of media that explores the mundanity of violence, but this has the same lonely desolation as true crime classic In Cold Blood rather than the more cooly clinical eye of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. There’s just enough hinting at of all the timelines that might have been to make the more vicious moments have their intended effect.
The small ensemble is excellently cast, and there’s a ton of small nuances in the performances that effectively communicate character details without a ton of exposition. The dynamic between Erik Thomson’s Hoaggie and Miriama McDowell’s Jill is easy to read, her steady steeliness a good counterbalance to his tendency toward temper under pressure. Matthias Luafutu’s Tubs has few lines, but uses his slight changes of expression and bulky physicality to communicate more than speeches ever could.
Besides, Mandrake does enough talking for the pair of them, and it’s his loquaciousness that drives the film’s themes forward. Daniel Gillies has plenty of villains in his filmography, but his Mandrake is a star making turn, a dirty nailed drifter who fancies himself a temporarily indisposed dandy. He’s a predator and a scavenger, enjoying the hope his victims get from his faux courtly moments, before erupting into the bursts of violence that were inevitable regardless of their choice of response. This joy buzzer effect keeps the tensions flowing even in the film’s quieter moments.
Coming Home In The Dark‘s claustrophobic grimness, deescalating pace and ambiguous resolution won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the sheer amount of performance and technical skill on display also makes it hard to look away from even in its more sluggish sequences. What’s done in the dark always comes out in the light, and James Ashford definitely shines as a writer/director to keep an eye on when the credits roll.
Director: James Ashcroft
Writer(s): James Ashcroft, Eli Kent, Owen Marshall (based on the short story by)
Stars: Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell
Release date: January 30th, 2021
Studio/Production: Light In The Dark Productions
Country: New Zealand
Run Time: 93 minutes