[Sundance Review] 'Coming Home in the Dark' Takes Audiences Down a Nihilistic Road Filled with Tension
“That right there is going to be the moment you wish you’d done something…”
…I won’t bother asking you if there’s a moment in your life where you regret not doing more. We all have one. You know it, that time where you wish you had helped, had said something, had done something. It’s that moment which director James Ashcroft’s nihilistic thriller Coming Home in the Dark, having just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, bites into with a vicious ferocity.
Written by Ashcroft and Eli Kent, and based on a short story by Owen Marshall, Coming Home in the Dark puts us in the middle of a family road trip with Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and their two sons, Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) as the four explore the lush scenery of New Zealand. While having a picnic, they encounter two unseemly men in Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), learning that these two men have sinister plans for them, involving a long, dark road to the past.
Beginning with shades of off-road thrillers such as Wolf Creek, Coming Home in the Dark opens with an uneasy calmness, as we see the silhouette of a person sitting in the tall grass, the orange of the setting sun washing out everything else, followed by the shot of an abandoned car, open door creaking in the wind. An ominous score creeps in, sounding more like the screeches and groans of a dying creature than anything resembling “music”, setting the stage for what is easily one of the most gut-wrenching films to debut at Sundance this weekend.
And like any great thriller, Ashcroft draws us in with warm, open arms before trapping us in a painful bear hug with no escape.
Hoaggie and his family are plainly average, likeable people. Hoaggie is a bit of a fuck up, getting a speeding ticket and automatically being replaced by Jill, a determined, take-control woman clearly frustrated but ultimately loving towards the three boys in her life. Maika is quiet, and Jordan is in his angsty teen years. They feel normal. Happy. That happiness accentuated by the awe-inspiring landscapes which surround them. If you’ve never been to New Zealand, the picturesque imagery will have you dying to go.
All of it comes crashing down once Mandrake and Tubs arrive, setting in motion a dark, unforgiving and painfully introspective journey through the soul.
The entire cast nails their roles, but it’s Gillies that constantly draws our attention as the calm, calculated yet frighteningly violent Mandrake. While I will not put his performance on the god tier that is Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Gillies is similar in his approach in the way which he manipulates the conversation and pries at the minds of Hoaggie and the others with a sharp tongue and the subtle threat of violence. There’s a charm to Mandrake, a charm which I hated being drawn to, but couldn’t resist nonetheless. Even in moments where Mandrake is off-screen somewhere else, his presence and the horror he can bring at any moment is felt.
During an introduction for the film, Ashcroft stated that part of the inspiration for Coming Home in the Dark came from wanting to deal with the sins of his country’s past. But Coming Home in the Dark comes to terms with more than just a history specific to New Zealand, instead crafting a relevant theme which relates to us all: the theme of complicity.
Eventually, our characters find themselves on a trip to an unknown location. From here, Coming Home in the Dark lives up to its title, suffocating any ounce of light and plunging the cast into the deep dark of the isolated countryside. There is no one else but the people in the car, trapped with two vicious men who refuse to make their intentions clear, enjoying the game of prying the pain of the past from their intended target.
Human beings have this habit of running from their regrets. Instead of owning up to them, we try to leave them behind us. But Coming Home in the Dark is a reminder that, just like the relentless demon of It Follows, our past always finds us, no matter how far we travel down that long, dark road.
Needless to say, Coming Home in the Dark is a hard film to watch.
And it’s not because of the violence. Not really. There is violence, a lot of it, and no one is spared by it. Not Hoaggie and his family, not innocents that find themselves in their unfortunate path, no one. Ashcroft doesn’t relish in the violence though. Gore is not the focus, and there is little of it. What makes Coming Home in the Dark so difficult to watch is the pain of it all. The agonized, screeching pain of the characters. The pain of the realization that life is cruel. And the pain of coming to terms with ourselves that we’re all haunted by a time we wish we would’ve done something more.
With his debut feature, Ashcroft has delivered a devastating stunner that thrives on its ruthless message like some insatiable monster. Ashcroft hardly gives the audience a moment to breathe, loading his film with moments of heart-pounding tension that will fray the ever-loving shit out of your nerves. Coming Home in the Dark gets up close and personal with the brutality of mankind, and it isn’t afraid to get nasty. Coming Home in the Dark is a cold-blooded sucker-punch, a kick to the gut when you’re already down in the mud. It is by no means pleasant, but like anything, no matter how ugly it gets, humans can’t help but be mesmerized by that car wreck.
By Matt Konopka