Coming Home In The Dark has its Canadian première on demand at Fantasia 2021
Middle-class, middle-aged couple Alan (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell) are hiking through a remote coastal area of New Zealand on a family day out. As their constantly bickering twin teenage sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) walk some way ahead, Alan says to Jill: “It fascinates me, you know, you get two eggs from the same basket, and one of them’s this lovely gentle patient boy and the other one’s…” This is probably not the first time that Alan and Jill, both high school teachers well-used to rearing and guiding young minds, have contemplated issues of nature and nurture – but they, and we with them, are about to be confronted head-on with this very question and its horrifying ramifications in a rather less hypothetical form. For as these four picnic in the wilderness, disarmingly polite, talkative Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and taciturn Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) approach with a shotgun, intending to steal the family’s transport – but when Mandrake hears Jordan address his father by the nickname Hoaggie (a hypocorism of Alan’s Dutch surname Hoogenraad), the plan of the two delinquent carjackers suddenly, violently changes, and Alan and Jill find themselves being driven in their own vehicle on a long dark night of the soul.
Adapted from Owen Marshall‘s 1995 short story of the same name, James Ashcroft’s feature debut Coming Home In The Dark unfolds over less than a 24-hour period, but encompasses a much longer span of time, limning formative events in the past that have helped turn Mandrake and Tubs into the vicious outlaws that they are today. And while their stated destination may, as the very title suggests, be ‘home’, that will turn out to be a word that resonates with more than one sense as their harrowing childhood experiences in New Zealand’s juvenile detention centres emerge. For, like several of their now incarcerated former classmates, Mandrake and Tubs are also ‘eggs from the same basket’, having both been shaped by the same brutal system – and now they hope to be able, belatedly, to turn the tables on their captives and teach the educators a lesson.
A tense road movie wherein Mandrake and Tubs’ early-revealed capacity for criminal extremity hangs threateningly over all that follows, Coming Home In The Dark falls somewhere between Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). Ruth Platt’s The Lesson (2016) and Barry Levinson’s Sleepers (1996), as vehicular abduction, sociopathy, education and institutional abuse all play their part in the unfolding drama. Yet what makes this bleak thriller so hard-hitting is the complicated moral symmetry that it gradually draws, across the divide of class and age, between ‘Hoaggie’ and Mandrake, as the younger man’s callous disregard for the sufferings of others is found to have its echo in past behaviour that the older, more respectable teacher would like – and could, till now, afford – to put behind him.
In the part of Mandrake, Gillies delivers unbearable menace through an insistently matey bonhomie that is completely out of kilter with its context – and his constant verbal goading of Alan drives the film towards confession, if not quite redemption. At the centre of Coming Home In The Dark is the mistreatment of adolescents – and as non-intervening onlookers come in for as much condemnation and punishment as the active perpetrators of sadistic abuse, the film’s genre-fied analysis of a cycle of all-too-real outrages in New Zealand’s state ‘care’ establishments places the implicated viewer too very much on the hook. You can pretend not to have seen or heard the dehumanising horrors outlined in Mandrake’s carefully spun yarn, but there is ultimately no evading the fact that a family’s – and a state’s – problems begin in the home, and come back to roost there, leaving a traumatic trail of collateral damage on their dark, nocturnal round trip whose circle is never closed.
strap: James Ashcroft’s bleakly tense road movie teaches a hard, cyclical lesson in abduction, abuse and outrage
© Anton Bitel