In what has been an excellent year for the local film industry, Coming Home in the Dark is the latest entry.
It takes an established genre and elevates and excavates it to expose a more complex, more human, believable, and sympathetic narrative than Hollywood could ever find, as great New Zealand films have a way of doing.
At the heart of Coming Home in the Dark is a superb narrative by Owen Marshall. Two seeming drifters abduct and terrorize a couple, but only after perpetrating heinous atrocities against the family.
The tension between these – as they become – fighting spouses is always evident. Hoaggie is Pkeh, and Jill is Mori. Likewise, Mandrake and Tubs, their tormentors. The leader, Mandrake, is Caucasian, while Tubs is Pasifika/Mori. The significance of this goes unsaid, yet casting a film is not haphazard. As Jill hesitantly reaches out to Tubs and is promptly shut down, Ashcroft goes far beyond language to show us something we can’t put through words.
Coming Home in the Dark works because the bones of Marshall’s narrative are fleshed out. The stereotype of the mindless and motiveless psychopath may have been enough for Americans and a few Australians over the years. Still, we tend to be a little more broody and contemplative – even guilt-ridden – about our actual and imaginary villainy in this nation. No man is a monster in Ashcroft’s universe, but some men are produced by monsters. Mandrake and Tubs are the results of adversity and sadism.
Only a few minutes into the family’s ordeal, and before anything irrevocable happens, another set of campers appears across the lake from where the family is held at gunpoint. Mandrake cheerfully waves at them and forces the rest of the family to do the same. When the visitors have left, Mandrake turns to Hoaggie and says, “When you look back, you’ll see that was when you could have done something,” emphasizing that this is a narrative of consequences.
Hoaggie may have decided decades ago not to be bold, and that decision has ruined the boys’ lives, Mandrake, and Tubs. Hoaggie has made the same decision again, and Mandrake is ready to punish him with a fearful symmetry.
Ashcroft and Kent have crafted a minimalist narrative. Still, a tale here is considerably more exciting and rewarding than the nihilism and misanthropy that all too frequently plague this problematic genre.
Everyone up to and including Michael Haneke has tried to make this tale sing and resonate, but I believe Ashcroft has succeeded. Even the conclusion, which some will find frustratingly unclear, will elicit further discussion on the way home.
The cast is superb. Erik Thomson as Hoaggie, Daniel Gillies as Mandrake, Matthias Luafutu as Tubs, and Miriama McDowell as Jill are excellent. McDowell and Luafutu are particularly effective at toggling wordlessly through decisions and possible outcomes, while Gillies makes the contrary Mandrake both literate and brutish.
In this primarily night-set picture, cinematographer Matt Henley works effectively with believable light sources. The action is frequently lighted only by dashboards, incoming cars, candles, or splashes of street lighting, yet Henley manages to keep everything understandable and, at times, perversely beautiful.
Veteran composer John Gibson (Rain of the Children) produces soundscapes that wonderfully express these people’s fear, courage, and fragility.
Coming Home in the Dark is a fantastic masterpiece that is as pitiless as it is subtle. Go check it out.