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Sundance 2021: “Coming Home in the Dark” loses its way.

Coming Home in the Dark

James Ashcroft’s hostage horror is nought but bland, sour sadism.

Before the premiere screening of the New Zealand import Coming Home in the Dark, the festival programmer introducing it led off by admonishing viewers that the following film was “not for the faint of heart.” Of course, for a violent thriller appearing in the midnight slot at Sundance, such words are not so much a warning as they are a come-on designed to lure in those with more outre tastes hoping to find the next gory hit to emerge from the festival. Although the film is certainly gruesome enough, there is nothing here that average viewers will find to b that far beyond the pale. Instead, they are more likely to be put off by James Ashcroft’s hollow and increasingly tiresome exercise in empty sadism whose utter pointlessness is further underscored by its delusions that it is saying something profound.

Alan “Hoaggie” Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson) is a blandly pleasant-looking teacher who is off on a car trip with his wife, Jill (Mirama McDowell )and her teenaged sons Make (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) to the coast. All seems perfectly normal until they, in the time-honored tradition of bad cinematic car trips, decide to stop for a hike and a picnic lunch. It is while completing the latter that they are approached by two men, the extremely loquacious Mandrake (Daniel Gilles) and the more taciturn Tubs (Mathias Luafutu). After a few minutes of vaguely menacing talk, Mandrake produces a rifle and the two interlopers are soon on the road with Alan and the family—at least what remains of it—as their captives.

In essence, Coming Home in the Dark is a standard-issue home invasion thriller that has the novelty of being on wheels but otherwise follows the usual template of a seemingly happy family being physically and psychologically tormented by outsiders over the course of a few painful hours.

As much as I would like to simply deflate whatever vague secrets the screenplay by Ashcroft and Eli Kent has in store in order to highlight just how little there is going on, sheer professionalism prevents me from doing so. Suffice it to say, it soon transpires that this may not have been the random act of senseless violence it first appeared to be as the ever-monologuing Mandrake drops any number of hints and insinuations suggesting that he and Hoaggie do have a shared past history, even if Hoaggie is initially unable (or possibly unwilling) to recognize it. As they head on into the night to a unknown final destination, Mandrake is determined to get Hoaggie to admit to those past events and is equally determined to make brutal work of anyone who has the bad luck of getting in his path along the way.

In essence, Coming Home in the Dark is a standard-issue home invasion thriller that has the novelty of being on wheels but otherwise follows the usual template of a seemingly happy family being physically and psychologically tormented by outsiders over the course of a few painful hours. The establishing scenes are okay but then comes the shocking act around which the plot turns and this is where the film lost me. For one thing, the victims of said act have been so indifferently established that the only real reaction that it inspires is mere surprise/shock—since we don’t really care about them, it is impossible to feel anything about or grieve for them. For another, the shock cannot quite cover up the fact that these characters have no more weight or bearing on the story than the gas station attendant who meets a nasty end later on and that they exist only to inspire a queasy, attention-grabbing initial shock.

The remainder of the film proves to be equally shallow and one-note as well. The film tries to say something about the horrors of institutionalized brutality and, perhaps worse, the complicit nature of those in a position of power who witnessed it but chose to do nothing about it. However, while this proves to be the key to what is happening, it doesn’t really seem to have any interest in the topic other than as a trigger for the sadistic sights on display here. If this was to work, for example, we should be able to look at Hoaggie and get some kind of understanding of his horror over the thought of his past sins finally coming back to destroy the carefully cultivated image that his family has towards him. No such luck—as the constantly yakking Mandrake, Gilles takes up so much of the oxygen in the room, figuratively and literally, that the others barely get in a word edgewise, let alone the time and space for a true reckoning of past misdeeds.

Coming Home in the Dark is slickly made and as a calling card, I suppose it does demonstrate that Ashcroft has the skills to make a film and might one day even make a good one. Beyond the empty style and emptier sadism, though, there is simply nothing going on here to justify either the cruelties or the pretensions on display. This is the kind of film that is sometimes described simply as a “gut-punch,” primarily because there is ultimately nothing else about it to discuss that would stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. Put it this way—if you liked Wolf Creek but thought that the narrative and the characters were both too well-developed and intriguing for its own good, then Coming Home in the Dark is definitely the movie for you

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.