Coming Home in the Dark – Film Review

By Naomi Roper

Hoagie (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell)and Jill’s two boys are on a hiking trip in the wilds of New Zealand. Their trip is interrupted by the arrival of Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) who arrive into Hoagie’s life like the wrath of God. What starts out as a car theft goes horrendously wrong when one of the kids mentions Hoagie’s name. Soon the family are fighting for survival as Mandrake seeks to teach Hoagie a lesson he won’t forget.

Holy God, there’s brutal and then there’s this. Coming Home in the Dark is absolutely not fucking around. An early sequence features an act of such savagery I was left open-mouthed my brain not quite computing what I had just seen. Adapted from a short story by Owen Marshall by co-writers James Ashcroft (who also directs in his feature debut) and Eli Kent Coming Home in the Dark is brutal, bleak and utterly devastating. It’s an astonishing directorial debut from James Ashcroft who filmed the actors on the back roads of New Zealand. The lighting and vistas are stunningly beautiful, New Zealand’s landscape has never looked more enticing even as the various atrocities make you want to close your eyes and never look at the screen again.

The movie belongs to Daniel Gillies who gives the best performance I’ve seen in a genre picture this year as the charismatic, eloquent, casually sadistic Mandrake. Mandrake is the sort of person you pray you never ever meet but Gillies’ performance is so blisteringly strong you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Mandrake is the chatty sort, casually responding to the devastated Jill’s accusation that he’s a fucking murderer with the nonchalant “As opposed to what? A fucking accountant?” Mandrake is a monster but in Gillies’ hands, he’s an utterly captivating one. 

Gillies has exceptionally strong support from Matthias Luafutu who is equally brilliant but in a very different way.  His role is not as showy as Gillies but he gets two of the best sequences in the movie. A scene where we get to the heart of why Mandrake has decided Hoagie needs to be taught a lesson features Luafutu in the background as Hoagie desperately pleads his case. Ashcroft frames the sequence superbly, Hoagie mumbling his excuses while the lights from the road splash across the silent face of Tubs. Luafutu never says a single, solitary word and yet the rage and sheer hatred he conveys is so palpable you find yourself wanting to run from his gaze. At the end a scene of a silent Tubs, eyes filled with tears is so devastating it takes your breath away. It’s a wonderful performance.

Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell are equally superb as Hoagie and Jill. I had some major issues with the way Jill’s story plays out but McDowell’s performance is pure fire and rage. Thomson has possibly the hardest job navigating a character who starts as an everyman and then is slowly revealed to be not quite the nice guy we thought he was. Thomson handles the shifting tones well.

Coming Home in the Dark is one hell of a directorial debut by James Ashcroft. It’s not an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination but it features stunning vistas, exceptional lighting and some of the best acting I’ve seen in a genre picture in years.  Devastating and bleak Coming Home in the Dark turns a cold gaze at the cycle of abuse and asks whether there can ever be redemption for the perpetrators (whether they are active or passive participants). 

I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago now and genuinely can’t stop thinking about it. That’s how much Coming Home in the Dark burrows under your skin.

Brilliantly acted (with a performance from Daniel Gillies that should be rewarded by awards bodies if they ever gave respect to genre pictures)  and beautifully directed Coming Home in the Dark is a masterpiece of Kiwi cinema.

We watched Coming Home in the Dark as part of Frightfest.