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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Coming Home in the Dark

More than just another holiday horror film, this tense, nerve-wracking and unrelenting New Zealand thriller dives into the country's complicated past.
By Sarah Ward
September 09, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
September 09, 2021
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When Coming Home in the Dark starts, it's with a lingering look at New Zealand's landscape, with the film peering across the magnificent countryside as far as the camera can see. In doing so, it begins with two familiar touches that bubble with comfort and security. NZ's stunning scenery has been burned into audiences' minds several times over via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. As a result, it beckons with the kind of warm memories that've sent plenty of fans flocking to the nation's shores. And, the people seen navigating NZ's scenic sights here, and what they're doing, also initially sit in cosy territory. Hoaggie (Eric Thomson, The Furnace) and Jill (Miriama McDowell, Waru) have hit the road from Wellington with their teenage sons Maika and Jordan (debutants Billy and Frankie Paratene), all to stop at quaint service stations, hike through the wilderness, take family photos with striking backdrops and have a nice little picnic. In other words, they're enjoying exactly the leisurely trip you'd expect in such eye-catching surroundings. Fond thoughts, tranquil feelings, unspoiled vistas, loving company — none are indulged for too long, though. Coming Home in the Dark sees the bliss and beauty, but it also quickly shines a spotlight on trauma and horror.

During the picnic, two men appear suddenly, instantly popping the happy little bubble that's encased the film's central family so far. It's immediately apparent that the gun-toting Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, Occupation: Rainfall) and his little-spoken offsider Tubs (Matthias Luafutu, Ghost in the Shell) aren't there to improve this picturesque escape, or to make friends. First, the interlopers demand the car keys. Mandrake taunts his hostages and struts around like he's holding court, visibly feeding on the response. He warns Hoaggie that they're facing a pivotal juncture, too — one where "later on, when you're looking back at this occasion, I think that right there's going to be the moment you wish you'd done something." Then, after a campervan of fellow travellers has been waved away from the precarious hostage situation, Coming Home in the Dark starts to sink its claws in. Within the narrative, the movie forever shatters any possibility of returning to its idyllic opening scenes. Thematically, it unearths the ills of history that refuse to remain buried.

The terrain is different — there's no mistaking New Zealand's greenery for Australia's ochre-hued outback — but Coming Home in the Dark finds kindred spirits in features from across the ditch. In both countries, natural splendours can't mask the woes of the past, or the injustices waged against either nation's Indigenous inhabitants (for Aussie examples, see: Ivan Sen's Mystery Road and Goldstone, Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country and powerful 2021 release High Ground). Adapting Owen Marshall's short story of the same name, first-time feature director James Ashcroft appears to be taking cues from Austria to begin with, however, and fashioning Coming Home in the Dark after Michael Haneke's two versions of Funny Games. There's an iteration of this story that could play out at random and prove soul-crushingly chilling as a result, as all tales that highlight life's arbitrary cruelty do, and yet that isn't what's on offer. Instead, Ashcroft and co-screenwriter Eli Kent (The Seagull) find an even deeper pool of terror in pondering the treatment of children in government-run facilities. Their script shares threads in common with Cousins from earlier this year, but they dive deep into the abuse of kids in such places — the boys' homes and similar sites in use for half a century between 1950–99 — as well as examining the inescapable scars left, the paths towards criminal behaviour potentially sparked and, here, the retribution inspired.

If Coming Home in the Dark doesn't waste a second in jumping from a gorgeous getaway to holiday horrors, and it doesn't, then it's just as precise about and committed to its trek from there. After Ashcroft and cinematographer Matt Henley (also making his feature debut) bask in NZ's majestic landscape — including showing how isolating it can be when things go awry, without overtly labouring the point — they embrace their journey into more brutal territory. Indeed, there's no flinching at splashing bloodshed across the screen, at boldly blasting away happiness or at exploring who is complicit in horrific deeds, and how and why. There's no simple route through the film, either, or straightforward way to apportion sympathy. As a thriller, Coming Home in the Dark is tense, nerve-wracking and unrelenting, feats it achieves in no small part thanks to its knife's-edge balancing act. What befalls Hoaggie, Jill and their family is shocking and nightmarish, and so are the events that've brought Mandrake and Tubs to them — and the connective tissue between the two couldn't be thornier and knottier.

Unsurprisingly, this is a picture that's constantly shifting. It refuses to relax, seek a reprieve or offer solace, even briefly. Ashcroft helms an exacting genre piece and a weighty musing on trauma combined, and his riveting film isn't easily forgotten — not its story, its melding of vacation scares with historical atrocities, or the imagery that segues from postcard-perfect sights to stark scenes of violence. Also memorable and seeping under the skin in an insidious fashion: The Vampire Diaries and The Originals star Gillies. He's menacing in every second, and looms large like an immovable force. He's scruffy, steely, unwavering and unpredictable, and gives flesh to the movie's contemplation of piercing troubles that won't be shaken. He's also pivotal when the film explores how everyone twists tales to fit their own preferred narratives (as underscored by a short but pointed argument about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). Still, Coming Home in the Dark has space for fine turns across the board, including from Thomson. He initially leans on the affable dad vibes that've clung to him since Packed to the Rafters — but, like everything else here, he doesn't ever just stick to the expected.

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