James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark

I’ve never seen New Zealand cast in a dark or menacing cinematic light, having been used to stuff like the fantastical dazzle of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and the quaint, quirky whimsy of Taika Waititi’s fare. Not being that well versed in films coming from the country, I was fairly blown away and left in a kiln-fired state of deep shock by James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark, a vicious, unrelenting captivity thriller that wields a smouldering philosophical ember beneath a slick smokescreen of unbearable suspense, soul shaking acts of violence and stark, jagged cinematography that has as little visual mercy for the viewer as the two main antagonists do for their prey, a suburban family on a road trip through rural NZ who are stalked, terrorized and psychologically tortured endlessly. The villains, if you can called them that, are an interesting pair of spooky sociopathic drifters, led by the verbose, mercurial and terrifyingly dangerous Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his mostly silent, hauntingly observant sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). They seem to materialize out of the windswept ether just beyond a patch of swaying long grass where this family is peacefully picnicking. Toting a rifle, an impossibly misanthropic attitude and the volatile outbursts to back it up, Mandrake makes it his personal mission to hurt, toy with and mentally break down these people, particularly the dad (Erik Thomsen). But why? Are these two just wayward sick souls that target anyone out there, or is there some hidden, decades old resentment towards this middle aged family man, some personal grudge that lodges itself into Mandrake’s very essence and keeps him on this bloody, seemingly personal crusade of violence and ill-will? That’s the film’s central secret and one that blasts open the narrative from simplistic “family held captive by psychos” motif into something far deeper, darker and more ponderous. Gillies is an actor I never much paid attention to in Hollywood, he always got lobbed the forgettable pretty boy stuff and to be honest I didn’t even clock him as a Kiwi back then. Here he’s a little more aged, time-worn and haggard, and he gives what must be the performance of a lifetime, certainly one of the most effective and chilling villains I’ve ever seen, something like John Ryder from The Hitcher meets Dick Hickock from In Cold Blood. He’s like an elemental force of unflinching, ruthless resolve, made so by a horrific past that still glimmers on a low burn just behind his tangled bramble beard in deep set, searching eyes that harbour a potent malice shielding the last gasp of a broken child beneath. This is not a film for anyone who is even remotely squeamish; it doesn’t play by the usual rules of taboo and what you aren’t supposed to show in North American stuff and as such, it’s a fucking exhausting experience. But it’s also utterly captivating in every area from score to atmosphere to performances and, best of all, it has the kind of rich, sinewy, impossibly challenging thematic material that will have you thinking, processing, digesting for a long while after as this wicked story leaves a brand upon the soul. Excellent film.

-Nate Hill