Written by Anna Harrison
Coming Home in the Dark serves up a nice slice of idyllicism in its opening minutes as its cameras sweep through the beautiful New Zealand landscape with its lush rolling green hills and blue skies. The family that treks through this vista have their squabbles, as all families do, but Jill (Miriama McDowell) and Alan (Erik Thomson), nicknamed Hoaggie, still love each other, and though they may struggle with their sons Jordan (Frankie Paratene) and Maika (Billy Paratene), it still seems to be one big happy family. The four are preparing to go camping, and all is well until two strangers saunter up and pull out their guns.
The vagabonds are called Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), and though Jill and Hoaggie turn out their pockets and hand them the keys to their car, Mandrake and Tubs stay, the latter silently watching as the former monologues. Tensions are already high, and cinematographer Matt Henley uses plenty of long takes to keep the anxiety bubbling, often obscuring some of a character’s face so the audience has to guess at their expression. Jill, Hoaggie, Jordan, and Maika are all face-down on the ground, and thus the audience can only see Mandrake’s boots and the barrel of his gun; Hoaggie observes Mandrake from the back seat of a car, and viewers only catch a sideways glimpse of his profile.
And then, in a flurry of shocking violence, first-time director (and co-writer with Eli Kent) James Ashcroft takes Coming Home in the Dark up a notch, kicking gears into something akin to a horror movie, though one that relies on a creeping sense of dread rather than jump scares and gore. Gillies in particular imbues Mandrake with such an edge that every time he opens his mouth the sense of uneasiness grows until it feels like it might choke you—here is proof that not every actor appearing on the CW (Gillies is most known for his role in The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff, The Originals) is just a pretty face.
But why are Mandrake and Tubs inflicting this violence, both psychological and physical, on Hoaggie, Jill, and their family? Where Coming Home in the Dark separates itself from other thrillers are the urgent ideas running beneath its violent surface: the effect of abuse on both the victim and the abuser, the insidiousness of certain state institutions, the culpability of those who just stand by and watch bad things happen. “There’s a difference between doing something and letting it happen,” Jill says. “There has to be. But they live on the same street.”
Despite Mandrake’s hideous malevolence, as he begins to coax out bits and pieces from Hoaggie’s past (and his own), even a character you had come to trust and sympathize with begins to churn your stomach. It’s quite an impressive debut from Ashcroft, who keeps the film slim and taut, never letting the audience’s anxiety lessen as he teases out the true reason for Mandrake and Tubs’ appearance.
There’s an undercurrent of racial tension at play with Mandrake and Tubs’ relationship and past—Mandrake is white and Tubs is Māori—that rears its head in the finale, but is so subtle that you have to wonder if Ashcroft intended it to be there or we are just grafting an invented conflict onto the film, yet it’s easy to infer the implications. Even if Ashcroft leaves some of these avenues underexplored, Coming Home in the Dark’s moral quandaries still offer plenty of room to get lost in. Much like Mandrake, when it puts its foot on the gas pedal, it rarely slows down, never letting your pulse do anything but race.
Coming Home in the Dark Trailer
Coming Home in the Dark was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival which runs until August 25.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.