James Ashcroft’s feature length directorial debut shares DNA with the works of Michael Haneke. Like him, Ashcroft seems to be obsessed with societal guilt as well as how our past actions might reverberate through the present. His relentless and brutal film is expertly crafted and pulls no punches. The violent momentum pulsing through this work’s veins never eases up and constrains the audience in a 90-minute vice of unbearable tension.

As the film opens, we see a sunset, or maybe it’s a sunrise, we aren’t exactly sure, yet. We meet an average family as they drive through the remote New Zealand landscape. Two young teenage brothers bicker in the backseat, Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene). Jill (Miriama McDowell) and Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) are up front, they are playful with each other. Their dynamic is anomalous. It could be any family.

Eventually, they get out of the car hike to a lake, high and far from the road. Their picnic is sprawled out, no cares in the world until two men, Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) and Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) appear in frame. The audience clearly sees them, but the family hasn’t noticed them. The moment is reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There is an inevitability to the moment. Jill gives them the keys to the car. They throw their phones and wallets to them. They have plans though. Nothing will change their trajectory. So, the family is dragged on a road trip, forced into the claustrophobic hell of their luxury SUV.

Coming Home in the Dark isn’t necessarily a film you will have fun with. The violence in the film is bluntly and harshly delivered. But there is no doubt it is effective. Ashcroft constructs every moment to achieve maximum tension. Teasing out an unnerving and astonishing performance from Daniel Gillies as the central villain. The other standout is Erik Thomson who walks a perfect line. The audience can sense there is something he’s withholding, trying to play his cards correctly, but how do you play a card game when you don’t quite know the rules?

When we do realize the reason behind what’s happening to this family, it is hard to not wonder, “was the crime worth the sentence?” Of course, that’s part of the point. Ashcroft is dealing with how our societies fail our youth. And, as that final shot comes, the audience circles back and is reminded of the question, was that opening shot a sunset or a sunrise? A beautiful that haunts the entire moment.

The Haneke comparison is accurate, but he hasn’t crafted something as morally complex or as ambiguous as something like Cache or The White Ribbon. But those are true masterpieces dealing with implications of one’s actions or a country’s actions. The comparison is deserved because Ashcroft shows considerable craftsmanship in his direction. There’s no doubt he has a masterpiece in him, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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