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Coming Home in the Dark

★★★★½ - STUFF  

- A terrific Kiwi thriller, as pitiless as it is nuanced - 

On an isolated chunk of coastline, a family are bonding over a hike in the hills and a picnic.

Mum, Dad and the two teenage boys are a picture of modern domestic ordinariness. The boys are joshing and squabbling a little, while Dad and Mum – Alan “Hoaggie” and Jill – exchange banter over how to raise sons.

But, a glimpse of two lean figures standing on a ridge above the family is a ruthlessly efficient shorthand for where this story is heading.

Coming Home in The Dark is the latest entry in a vintage year for the local industry. As great New Zealand films have a habit of doing, it takes an established genre and then elevates and excavates it to reveal a tougher, more human, believable and compassionate story than Hollywood might ever have found.

At the guts of Coming Home in the Dark is a very fine story by Owen Marshall, in which two seeming drifters kidnap and terrorise a couple, but only after first committing some appalling violence to the family.

Writer/director James Ashcroft and co-writer Eli Kent keep to this lean and endlessly interpretable canvas, but also – of necessity – sketch in a sparse backstory involving the abuse and corruption at state homes-for-children in our recent past.

Always present is the dynamic between these – as they become – warring couples. Hoaggie is Pākehā, while Jill is Māori. Likewise, their tormentors Mandrake and Tubs. Mandrake – the leader – is white, while Tubs is Pasifika/Māori. The significance of this goes unspoken, but casting a film is not an accidental process. As Jill tentatively reaches out to Tubs – and is immediately shut-down – Ashcroft is travelling far past dialogue, to show us things we struggle to find the words for.

This fleshing of the bones of Marshall's story is what makes Coming Home in the Dark work. The cliché of the senseless and motiveless psychopath might have been enough for the Americans and a few Australians over the years, but in this country we tend to be a bit more broody and introspective – guilt- ridden, even – over our real and fictional villainy. In Ashcroft's world, no man is a monster, but some men are created by monsters. Mandrake and Tubs are the products of neglect and sadism.

As WH Auden unimprovably put it, “I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”.

Only a few minutes into the family's torment, before anything irreversible has occurred, another group of campers appear, across the lake from where the family are held at gunpoint. Mandrake waves happily at them and forces the family to do the same. When the visitors are out of sight, Mandrake turns to Hoaggie and says, “When you look back, you're going to realise that was when you could have done something”, immediately laying out that this is a story of consequences.

Decades earlier, Hoaggie may have decided not to be brave – and that decision has destroyed the lives of the boys who became Mandrake and Tubs. Now Hoaggie has made that same decision again – and Mandrake is about to reward him with a fearful symmetry.

Ashcroft and Kent have created a minimalist narrative, but there is a story here – and one far more engaging and satisfying than the nihilism and misanthropy that too often blight this troublesome genre.

Everybody up to and including Michael Haneke has had a crack at getting this storyline to sing and resonate, but I reckon Ashcroft has succeeded. Even the ending, which some will find frustratingly ambiguous, will spark more debate on the walk home.

Erik Thomson as Hoaggie, Daniel Gillies as Mandrake, Matthias Luafutu as Tubs and Miriama McDowell as Jill are all superb, with McDowell and Luafutu especially effective at toggling wordlessly through decisions and possible outcomes, while Gillies finds a way to make the contrary Mandrake both literate and brutish.

Cinematographer Matt Henley plays well with credible light sources in this largely night-set film. The action is often only illuminated by dashboards, oncoming traffic, torches or spills of street lighting, but Henley keeps everything comprehensible and, often, perversely beautiful.

Veteran composer John Gibson (Rain of the Children) creates soundscapes that perfectly convey the dread, courage and frailty of these people.

Coming Home in the Dark is a terrific piece of work, as pitiless as it is nuanced. Go see it.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF 

Coming Home in the Dark is now playing at Light House Cuba!

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