Feature film debuts can be a tricky thing to land. Many burgeoning filmmakers, desperate in their efforts to create something and demonstrate their own abilities, tend to throw everything onto the screen. The result of this is often an overcooked and muddled movie, one that would work better if everything were pared back, with the focus being shone onto just one or two of the creators’ talents. New Zealand newcomer James Ashcroft appears to have learned from the mistakes of so many others, opting to keep things fully streamlined in his feature debut, Coming Home in the Dark. Based on the short story of the same name by Owen Marshall, Coming Home in the Dark places school teacher Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and his family in peril as two ruthless drifters take them on a nightmare road trip.
Ashcroft uses the opening moments to establish both the remoteness of the setting, and the vulnerability of our family. In addition to panoramic shots that display the beauty and dangers of the New Zealand landscape, Ashcroft utilizes some high above and from behind drone captured footage. The latter shots covertly communicate the unsettling idea that the group is being spied on, a sensation that is quickly revealed to be true. Coming Home in the Dark could spend its time building up these characters, but Ashcroft chooses a different tack and almost immediately jumps into the dangerous hostage environment in which the rest of the story will play out. Knowing little about the people on either side of the situation enables the audience to get to know them at the same time as the characters themselves learn about one another onscreen.
The characters are an interesting blend of personalities. Hoaggie, although a respected teacher, is a little rough around the edges, prone to ill-advised outbursts, whereas his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) has more decorum and hides a steely determination to survive at all costs. Over the course of their captivity, stresses are inflicted upon their martial bonds as secrets surrounding Hoaggie’s past begin to surface. Our two captors, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), are worthy adversaries for the couple. Of the pair, Mandrake is the more dominant; he is a man with a thirst for words, whereas Tubs is monosyllabic. The whole scenario is of Mandrake’s devising, and much like Hoaggie and Jill, Tubs also appears to simply be along for the ride. Although never fully explored, there’s the notion that Tubs is just as wary of Mandrake as the others, and whilst Hoaggie and Jill are an obvious pairing, the dynamic between the two men definitely feels more master and servant or bully and victim. Watching the two relationships develop, evolve, and disintegrate around one another within this powder keg scenario makes for fascinating viewing.
Although all of the performances deserve praise, it is the work of Daniel Gillies that really serves to push Coming Home in the Dark into that higher tier of thriller film. His performance as Mandrake is simply exceptional. From a vocal perspective for Mandrake, Gillies speaks in a slurred and gnarled Kiwi accent, Gillies tapping back into the tongue of his youth whilst moulding and exaggerating it. The character is a fan of words and his own voice, serving as the main mouthpiece of the film with the lilt of his accent adding an almost poetic feel to the delivery of lines. Physically he appears gruff and foreboding, but as with his speech, there is a quiet elegance to the character. The whole vibe of Mandrake is an unsettling mixture of politeness and menace, think The Walking Dead’s Negan without the exuberance. Antagonists are always at their best when there’s an unpredictability to them ,and Mandrake may be the best villain of the highway since Rutger Hauer’s Hitcher.
Gillies is no stranger to playing a bad guy, he kept Elisha Cuthbert locked up in Captivity and has spent the better part of the last ten years playing a vampire on CW shows The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. His work here though is so deliberate and considered that he offers up a ‘villain’ unlike anything else he has done before. I use the term villain in quotations as, although not a good guy by any stretch of the imagination, there is an argument that in another type of film, say a revenge thriller, a character like Mandrake could easily be cast as protagonist. Such a character adds a morally ambiguous tone to some of the proceedings, Coming Home in the Dark operating within shades of grey rather than just black and white.
The bulk of Coming Home in the Dark occurs within the confines of an ever moving car. Having the vehicle in a constant state of motion keeps the movie pushing forwards. Ashcroft is smart in how he shoots in and around the car, switching shots and angles up regularly to keep the film visually interesting. One such method Ashcroft employs is to focus on the road ahead, capturing lovely dark and dangerous highways and winding country lanes. Much like the story and character’s agendas, the view of these roads is clipped off at just a couple of metres ahead, keeping the viewer in the literal dark about what is ahead.
Ashcroft continues to keep his film stripped back of over-the-top stylistic flourishes by keeping the light sources as natural as can be. This means that the car becomes the main source of lighting. The interior of the car is kept dark, just the lights from the room and dashboard casting any illumination. Exterior scenes are bathed in the orange and red hues of the head and backlights. Scenes in other places are either lit by pure natural light from nature or unfold under fluorescent tungsten. The decision to shoot in a more naturalistic way may sound easy, but it actually requires a lot of skill to make it look this good. Shooting in this way infuses shadowy energies and atmosphere, perfectly encapsulating the dark tones of the narrative and brutal actions that occur.
Every aspect of Coming Home in the Dark has been ingeniously thought through to propel the film forward. Even the camerawork and the way it is used has something to say. I’ve already touched upon the opening drone shots, which are kept wide and away from our players, but this switches almost instantaneously at the introduction of Mandrake. The character has a stranglehold on those under his watch and whilst they are contained, so too is the camera. For extended sequences the camera is kept still and steady, but in the moments where Mandrake’s grip on the situation begins to slip, the camera gets away from him too. At this juncture, the camerawork transitions to become handheld and loose, juddering along after those on screen, expertly mirroring the potential loss of control.
All of these superbly crafted elements conspire together to create a film that is bleak and brutal, enveloped in dread and violence, making Coming Home in the Dark a remarkable viewing experience. Its dizzying intensity disorientates, the air so thick with a malevolence that it is almost suffocating. Even when there isn’t any physical violence on display, the imagery of the word is independently sufficiently powerful and vivid to make you squirm. A true testament to less being more, with Coming Home in the Dark James Ashcroft has created a beautifully dark creature and birthed one of the most complex movie villains in decades.
Threateningly intense, Coming Home in the Dark will leave you breathless. Director James Ashcroft spins a dark twisted story of rage, revenge, and redemption, one that blisters the soul and will take days to shake.
Coming Home in the Dark is available to watch on Netflix now.
This review was first published on THN.