A silhouetted stranger stands slightly beneath a giant, copper sky in the brief cold open of Coming Home in the Dark. The foreshadowing score is a sustained and menacing note. In the next scene, audiences feel only minimal relief as they meet the four main characters; Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their sons, Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene). Their family vacation in New Zealand’s high country comes to a screeching halt as soon as two threatening strangers appear out of nowhere.
James Ashcroft makes his feature debut with this bleak revenge-thriller adapted from a short story by Owen Marshall. Only fifteen minutes into his movie, and the actor-filmmaker is already making viewers cover their mouths so they can squelch their screams. The unrelenting terror immediately unfolds as the protagonists quiver at their captors’ feet and at the business end of a loaded shotgun. It does not take long for Coming Home in the Dark to cross a narrative line other movies would never think to touch in the first place. Despite its quick-fire shocks early on, the film still has a long way to go in terms of anguish.
Revenge movies tend to be predictable. The injured party retaliates and delivers retribution in response to a grave injustice. This tried-and-true formula then provides swift catharsis for the victim. However, Coming Home in the Dark takes a completely different approach to the routine. The movie begins like any other thriller where urbanites are harassed by sadistic locals and forced to tap into their baser instincts if they want to survive. The film’s apparent villain, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), does not attack Hoaggie and his kin randomly. No, he and his partner Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) have their reasons for this onslaught of pain and misery.
Coming Home in the Dark is a case of sympathy for the situation rather than the victims. Hoaggie and his family are not at all deserving of their fates, but Ashworth and co-writer Eli Kent‘s script rushes into things without giving much reason to care about these people. In lieu of establishing a line of compassion for the main characters, the writers rely on the audience feeling a basic sense of commiseration. Even as more and more of Mandrake’s revenge plot comes out, the severity of Hoaggie’s plight is not diminished. Now viewers have to compartmentalize their own opinions because at the end of the day, they still understand the lesser of two evils.
Coming Home in the Dark never lets up until the very end. The suffering is extensive, and the sorrow is ceaseless. There is only so much people can take before they have to look away out of fear for their own wellbeing. The story’s level of nihilism is inordinate. The purpose of such a dejected and despicable narrative is not obvious, but there is a recurring theme about inaction and failing to do the right thing. Knowing that, there is not quite enough here to warrant a revisit other than wanting to see the gorgeous cinematography and relive the persuasive performances.
A depleted feeling is normal when watching a revenge movie, but there should also be a chance for restoration.