The Austin Chronicle

Coming Home in the Dark

Not rated, 93 min. Directed by James Ashcroft. Starring Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Daniel Gillies, Matthias Luafutu, Billy Paratene, Frankie Paratene.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 1, 2021

Violence curdles in the air every time menacing drifter Mandrake opens his mouth. "I'm a magician," he smugly threatens his latest victims. "I make things disappear." With his taciturn enforcer, Tubs (Luafutu), he's already committed some unspeakable act, indicated only by an abandoned car and a flash of material. But as portrayed by Daniel Gillies, Mandrake is no unnatural force, much as he evokes the bloodcurdling maliciousness of Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher. There has to be an explanation for why he targets schoolteacher Hoaggie (Thomson), and his wife (McDowell) and her kids from a prior marriage (the Paratenes). There has to be, right? Or is the universe as cold, arbitrary, and merciless as Mandrake's psychological and physical torture of the family?

As the title of Coming Home in the Dark implies, Hoaggie and his family planned on a simple picnic in the colder, wilder remotes of New Zealand and a return when the day is over. But the way their paths intersect with Mandrake and Tubs ensure that their plans are derailed beyond any repair, shattered, but it's not just physical. The violence is calmly executed with a chilling expertise, and always presaged by Mandrake's clinical examination of the events, like a merciless fusion of Australian revenger The Horseman and the mannered accusations and stabbing implications of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. Director/co-writer James Ashcroft looks at how monsters are created, because his true target is the hideous legacy of institutional violence in New Zealand's borstal system. Complicity and cruelty are all buried in the past, but they have a hideous habit of dragging themselves out of the grave in which the less metaphorical bodies are buried.

Empathy is eroded and transferred as dark secrets are revealed, but Ashcroft also appreciates that he is crafting a true monster in Mandrake. It's Gillies' performance that raises Coming Home in the Dark from fascinating to utterly chilling, complimenting Matt Henley's cold, angular cinematography and John Gibson's score, all reed instruments and long, clean draws over strings, like an icy wind blowing slow through dead grass and bones. But Gillies evokes rare, inhumane pleasure in Mandrake's measured brutality, with glimpses of a shattered child underneath. Conversations of nature versus nurture, accident versus causality, and shades of evil pervade, without ever feeling forced. It's a razor's edge between the visceral and the cerebral that Ashcroft balances upon, an indictment of a cycle of powerlessness begetting abuse. Coming Home in the Dark bears a bleak, bleak message: There is no fixing the sins of the past, no restorative grace that will ever prevent them from obliterating the fa├žade of a peaceful now. Instead, you just better bloody well hope that they don't get repeated.

Available on VOD Oct. 1

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