Trauma contains multitudes, a bonafide ripple effect that impacts everyone around whether or not we notice it. This is especially the case when it is systemic. While the film itself is by no means perfect, COMING HOME IN THE DARK aims to shine a light on the institutionalized horrors within New Zealand’s educational and welfare system. Utilizing violence and keeping tension mounted and ready, the viewer is taken for a ride that leaves us rooted in place. Unfortunately, there are gaps in the film’s story and, by the time we reach the film’s conclusion, the audience is left wanting.
COMING HOME IN THE DARK starts with the viewer following a car down a winding path through a valley. Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell) have whisked their two teenage sons away for a much-needed family getaway. Everything seems to be going according to plan on their hiking ventures until the family stops to have a picnic. Two drifters – Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) – appear in the clearing seemingly out of nowhere and, almost instantly, tensions are high. Things slowly escalate until a fateful violent decision seals the family’s fate and the viewer is taken on a journey to unpeel the layers of this story. A seemingly random encounter is never quite what it seems.
Adapting Owen Marshall’s original short story of the same name is both a blessing and a curse for writer/director James Ashcroft and co-writer Eli Kent. On the one hand, it leaves ample room to explore whether or not time can help heal trauma. Especially when those in positions of power continue to perpetuate said trauma within the system. Or, whether or not more should be done to reckon with our institutionalized sins on the populace. Considering the abuse-related scandals in both educational institutions and churches revealed in the past decade or so in New Zealand, there’s plenty of inspiration to pull from for the writers. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t quite get an in-depth explanation of this in COMING HOME IN THE DARK. At most, it’s a surface level excavation. And the film could have really gone further if there was more of a resolution to this attempted exploration.
Where Ashcroft succeeds is in the execution of the high-intensity needed to keep the audience engaged throughout the course of COMING HOME IN THE DARK. One story-related decision early on in the film helps to let the audience know what kind of film this actually is. It has the impact of having us on edge as it establishes how Mandrake and Tubs (though mostly Mandrake) are not to be toyed with. The downside to this story decision, though, is that it sets a high bar for the director to try to reach again later on. And Ashcraft doesn’t hit that bar again. However, this reviewer will iterate that it’s difficult to shake off that tension as the viewer will be left eyeing Mandrake and his decisions for the duration of the film.
Where the film really stands strong, though, is in its performances. Daniel Gillies is absolutely terrifying. For fans of “The Vampire Diaries”, he is unrecognizable. Completely transforming into Mandrake, there’s a wiliness and charm that will easily lure the viewer into a false sense of security. But, when Gillies’ leans into the innate violence of his character, shocked Pikachu faces will abound. Erik Thomson and Miriama McDowell work well together, having natural chemistry that shines onscreen. It makes it all the more painful when the audience watches as their marriage is continuously put to the test. Thomson’s interactions with Gillies’ Mandrake provide for great scene work as we watch how his character Hoaggie tries to keep Mandrake amused so as to protect his wife. This reviewer would have liked to see more solo scenes with Matthias Luafutu to give more room for his Tubs to explore but, for what the audience does see of his character onscreen, there’s much silently conveyed in his gaze.
As a feature debut, James Ashcroft shows promise. But the film itself is by no means perfect. COMING HOME IN THE DARK lures the viewer in before snapping the trap, shaking us up but never quite maintaining that level of impact in intensity as the film continues down its violent path. The limitations of the film’s source material are noticeable when the story tackles meatier content, but never quite diving deep enough to answer necessary questions. In the end, despite impactful performances and uncomfortable tension maintained throughout, viewers may be left wondering what was the lesson to take away from this as credits roll.
COMING HOME IN THE DARK had its world premiere on January 30th at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.