‘Coming Home in the Dark’: Brutal Exercise in Violence [Sundance Review]

Coming Home in the Dark held its audience in an iron-fisted grip last night during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival with one of the most shocking first acts this reviewer has seen in years.

Set against the gorgeous backdrop of New Zealand, the film opens with a family stopping for a picnic after a hike. When two men emerge from the woods, the family is immediately on their guard, but after an act of sudden and jaw-dropping violence, a strange and twisting series of events is set in place that will force at least one member of the family to face the ghost of their past.

The film is based on a short story by Owen Marshall with a script by Eli Kent and James Ashcroft. Ashcroft also directs the feature.

Coming Home in the Dark is a film that demands time to digest and consider after watching it. Viewers will almost have to put some distance between themselves and the material to process what they have seen.

Immediate reactions are visceral, and it would be easy to dismiss the film’s brutality as something merely intended to shock its audience without offering any underlying meaning. There is a place for that kind of film, and certainly they can be entertaining, but this is not the case here.

What Ashcroft and Kent have crafted is a story about violence that begets more violence. It is a comment, in part, about the treatment of institutionalized children and the kind of adults those children become. It is also a rather stark look at the repercussions of sitting back and watching violence happen without speaking up to stop it. There is guilt in silence, and that guilt plays out masterfully in Coming Home in the Dark.

What I am saying is that this film takes place in shades of gray. Certainly there are the “bad guys” and the “good guys,” but the lines that separate them are fuzzy at best. Those characters without inherent guilt in this morality play are dispatched quickly and with extreme prejudice throughout the film.

All of this is played out incredibly by a central cast that embody their roles well.

Miriama McDowell and Erik Thomson seem to dance on a razor-thin line as parents Jill and Hoaggie. From the moment they realize their family is in jeopardy, they become raw nerves, constantly scrambling to save those they love. You can actually see McDowell transform when she senses her children are in danger in the hardening of her eyes and the rigidity of her body.

Daniel Gillies on the other hand, takes on Mandrake, a role that could easily have become a cartoonish over-exaggeration of personified violence and turns it into a subtle, measured villain. With a single look, a slightly altered expression, he can make your blood run cold.

Rounding out the central cast is Matthias Luafutu as the quiet Tubs. The actor’s performance in the almost completely silent role is the very definition of the old adage that “still waters run deep.” He is undeniably the most mysterious of the cast. We are never sure what he is thinking or what binds him to Mandrake. He is decidedly the more passive of the two, carrying out orders with seeming detachment, but of all the characters portrayed in the film, his was the one I wanted to know more about.

As we finished our viewing last night, my colleague and I were discussing what it all meant. Was there a “meaning” to what we had witnessed? Did Ashcroft really just lock us in a car for an hour and a half with terrifying killers and see how claustrophobic he could make us?

Last night, I had no answer, and this morning, I am not entirely sure that I do either.

I will say this. I do not now, nor have I ever, believed that “meaningless violence” is a real thing. Some violence is more easily understood than others, but there is always a reason, even if the person committing that act of violence cannot clearly define that meaning themselves.

Brutality does not exist in a vacuum. Killers can seldom be placed in a singular category. Mandrake and Tubs certainly have violence and brutality in them, but so do Jill and Hoaggie. It is in meditating on these ideas that you can begin to see what Kent and Ashcroft were creating in the film, and honestly, you just have to see it for yourselves.

With its shocking scenes and ambiguous ending, Coming Home in the Dark is definitely a film that will have people talking in 2021.