Coming Home in the Dark, the directorial debut of actor-turned-director James Ashcroft, seems to be a pure exercise in tension. From the opening shot of a beautiful sunset set to an ominous drone that hard cuts to an extended silent shot of a seemingly abandoned Mercedes halfway off the road, Coming Home in the Dark is working to unnerve its audience.
After this opening, the film introduces a family on a camping road trip, the young teenage brothers argue in the backseat about whether rap is real music or not, and dad drives too fast through a speed trap so mom decides she has to take over. It’s a wonderful sequence that quickly endears the family to the audience and establishes the family dynamic. And because this is a genre film and we know that something bad is going to happen to this family, this introduction manages to feed the dread; we like these people, they’re not just fodder for a fun violence machine, they’re fully drawn human beings.
But something bad has to happen. When the family goes on a hike in a park that highlights New Zealand’s beautiful landscape, further emphasized by the film’s widescreen photography that also evokes westerns (a clear touch point for the film), they run into two men with bad intentions. The two men are very different from one another, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) is chatty, sort of charmingly cruel in a way that brings to mind Robert Mitchum (and less so Robert De Niro) in Cape Fear, while Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) says perhaps a total of three lines in the entire film.
In this initial meeting scene the film establishes a visual motif that’s used brilliantly a number of times throughout. The camera focuses on the face of dad Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) as we hear Mandrake pull out and cock a gun. This focus on faces and the reactions to sounds offscreen simultaneously deepens the emotional ties we have to these characters as we see fear, pain, and desperation appear in real time and allows our imaginations to picture the horrors of the offscreen violence ourselves. It also has a thematic heft as the story (which I won’t spoil) becomes morally ambiguous and fraught with the potentially deadly effects of lasting pain.
Of course these shots wouldn’t be effective if the actors weren’t up to the task, and every one of them here manages to bring a level of emotional truth to even the most melodramatic moments. Gillies and Luafutu are especially remarkable as Mandrake beautifully walks the line of friendly and menacing and Tubs feels like a wholly realized character based almost only on what Luafutu offers with his expressions, albeit the film did leave me wanting to know more about Tubs, but this also feels purposeful.
It’s a compliment to any film if it can make the audience truly feel for its characters, but it’s even more impressive when a film makes its most compelling characters its ostensible villains. But they are villains, they kill without remorse and Mandrake revels in his ability to add some charm to his cruelty. The film’s violence hits hard not because it’s graphic, it isn’t really, but because so much of it arrives unexpectedly well after a carefully built tension has been reached. The majority of the film seems interested in building the expectation of violence to a fever pitch, and then stretching it out a bit longer, making the audience unsure of when the inevitable violence will strike.
Coming Home in the Dark is an incredible debut and makes me excited to see what Ashcroft does next, and makes me hope that Gillies and Luafutu are offered more significant roles in the future.
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Coming Home in the Dark is a beautifully shot and well-acted thriller that manages to make the audience care for its characters while never sacrificing genre thrills.
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