Coming Home in the Dark is one of the scariest, most tense films you’ll see this year. The film opens with a memorable and jarring act of violence, and the suspense doesn’t let up until the final scene. While Coming Home in the Dark starts out with beautiful New Zealand landscapes and soon exchanges the gorgeous views for a dark and gritty interior, it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen during this 93 minute thriller.
Coming Home in the Dark opens with a shot of a car abandoned on the side of the road; before the viewer can figure out what happened to the car, we cut to a family along on a road trip, two kids squabbling about music in the back seat. The family’s trip together is meant to be leisurely. They eat candy on their road trip, and tell goofy knock-knock jokes as they hike a beautiful shoreline of cliffs. While a lurking danger is hinted at, this quiet and idyllic start to the film lulls the viewer into a sense of safety.
Any sense of security that developed in the film’s short introduction careens away when two men interrupt the family during a picnic, introducing themselves as Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his accomplice. The two young brothers, Maika and Jordan (Billy and Frankie Paratene), are clearly terrified; when they refer to their dad (Erik Thomson) as Hoaggie, the two agitators take a keener interest in him in particular; they know him from somewhere, and this isn’t just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Erik Thomson’s performance as Hoaggie is striking. He seems like a normal, cheerful family man, and he’s absolutely distraught and devastated when harm falls upon his family. He goes along with his agitators and complies with what they say, fearing for his life. There’s another side to Hoaggie that the two criminals are determined to uncover, and when they do, Thomson’s performance exhibits both complexity and verisimilitude. Miriama McDowell also gives a strong performance as Jill, Hoaggie’s wife. She is completely devastated by what is happening and displays the kind of strength no one should have to have.
Daniel Gillies performances as Mandrake is impressive, as the crass and brutal criminal who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. He’s loquacious, and his partner Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) is near-silent. The two make a terrifying team as they torment the anguished and horrified couple. As time passes on the horrifying road trip, and as we begin to learn more about the motivation behind the two criminals’ actions, the more complex this stomach-churning story becomes.
Directed by James Ashcroft in his feature-length debut, Coming Home in the Dark employs absolutely brilliant imagery of destructive and unexpected violence without being overly-graphic or gory. Much of the film takes place within the confines of a car, and the four lead actors’ performances keep the suspense at a high. While sometimes dark films can be quite literally hard to see, Coming Home in the Dark makes excellent use of what lighting it does have.
Coming Home in the Dark illuminates the most dreadful parts of ourselves. It’s a violent thriller about a man’s determination to protect his family, and two criminals’ determination to enact revenge. It’s about state violence, and the lengths people will go to for revenge. It’s also about reckoning with wrongdoings of the past. It will make you ask yourself what you’re capable of, remind you of how precious life can be, and how much can change in a day.
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