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The enormity of nature hits you like a freight train in the early scenes of James Ashcroft’s taut and sinewy first feature, Coming Home in the Dark. The majestic rural landscape of Greater Wellington, on the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s north island, changes in an instant from a place of enveloping tranquility to one of terrifying, helpless isolation as a family’s encounter with a pair of murderous drifters uncovers past trauma. What starts out as a nerve-rattling portrait of chance violence becomes a dark meditation on the long-term reverberations of childhood abuse in state institutions.
Adapted by actor-turned-director Ashcroft and Eli Kent from the short story by leading New Zealand fiction writer Owen Marshall, the thriller teases out its ambiguities with knowing malevolence. Is the family a victim of random, nihilistic viciousness or have they been targeted because of the past sins of the father? And to what degree does being witness to cruelty but doing nothing to stop it make a person culpable? Those questions resonate throughout the lean and mean action as the setting contracts from the expansive outdoors to the frightening claustrophobia of a car interior over a long night of intensifying hell.
Ashcroft and DP Matt Henley foreshadow the lurking menace in two succinct opening shots that reveal relatively little. The first is a magnificent sunrise with a lone figure sitting in silhouette on a hill overlooking the horizon. The second is an abandoned Mercedes left by the side of the road, an open passenger door creaking on its hinges in the breeze.
A Wellington schoolteacher nicknamed Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and her affably bickering teenage sons Maika and Jordan (Billy and Frankie Paratene) all seem content enough enjoying what one of the boys refers to with a hint of snark as “the road trip experience.” Even getting pulled over for speeding doesn’t dampen the mood for long. They take a hike in the mountains and then choose a spot by a pretty inlet for a picnic, posing for a family photograph to capture the moment. But that happy portrait is shattered the instant two strangers amble onto the scene out of nowhere.
Casually removing a rifle from under his coat, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, a TV veteran of The Vampire Diaries, Saving Hope and The Originals) does all the talking, while his hulking sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), who is of Maori descent like Jill and her boys, says nothing as he helps himself to their food. Hoaggie and Jill do their best to reassure Maika and Jordan by remaining calm, handing over their car keys and cash without hesitation. But any doubt as to whether Mandrake has violent intentions vanishes in a moment of startling brutality.
As the sociopaths pile the family into their car, a shell-shocked Hoaggie asks, “Where are you taking us?” “Home,” replies Mandrake, quietly savoring his prey’s panic while emotionless Tubs stares out the window at the darkening skies in silence.
From early on, the stunned horror and the dread of worse to come are spiked by John Gibson’s distinctive score, using the jagged string sounds of bowed piano and bass to insidious effect. At first, Ashcroft seems focused on creating a disturbing genre exercise with a debt to countless bone-chilling predecessors from Wolf Creek to Funny Games. But the script deftly stitches in the possibility that there could be an agenda behind the violence as Mandrake starts interrogating Hoaggie about his teaching experience.
“Business as usual. The next meal. The next car. It’s just a happy coincidence,” explains Mandrake as their past connection comes to light and Hoaggie begins to suspect some kind of twisted revenge plan. He’s prodded to revisit haunting details from his first job as an assistant teacher in a boys’ school for state wards that has since been shut down after a national scandal. This also undermines Jill’s trust in her husband, giving Mandrake an opening into which he can drive a wedge. The flickering looks in Tubs’ eyes make it clear that the same dark history touched his life.
Working with strong actors capable of walking the knife edge between fear and moral revulsion, sadism and barely stifled rage, Ashcroft and editor Annie Collins maximize the psychological murk hidden between the lines, doing a remarkable job of sustaining extreme tension. Charged set-pieces like a gas station stop, a tire blowout, an escape attempt and a desperate plea to a bunch of joyriding teens keep the pulse pounding, even if the worst of the bloodshed tends to be shown from a distance, mirroring Mandrake’s ice-cold detachment. Considering that the majority of the action is talk-driven and confined to the car, the pace is unrelenting.
The lines of power between white Mandrake and indigenous Tubs subtly introduce elements of racial disparity while declining to explore them head-on. The same goes for any possible point of connection between Tubs and Jill over their shared ethnicity. That factor feeds a slight sense of missed opportunity that might have given the script added dimension. But as an exploration of the ways in which childhood damage can manifest as unfettered evil in adults, taking its toll even on those who have absolved themselves of responsibility, Coming Home in the Dark is a rivetingly nasty ride and an assured debut from a promising new director.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production company: Homecoming Productions
Cast: Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Matthias Luafutu, Billy Paratene, Frankie Paratene, Bailey Cowan
Director: James Ashcroft
Screenwriters: Eli Kent, James Ashcroft, based on the short story by Owen Marshall
Producers: Mike Minogue, Catherine Fitzgerald, Desray Armstrong
Executive producer: James Ashcroft
Director of photography: Matt Henley
Production designers: Kate Logan, Phillip Gibson
Costume designer: Gabrielle Stevenson
Music: John Gibson
Editor: Annie Collins
Sound designer: John McKay
Sales: CAA, MPI Media Group
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