Review: New Zealand thriller ‘Coming Home in the Dark’ opens old wounds

A man smokes while driving, with another man in the back seat in the movie “Coming Home in the Dark.”
Daniel Gillies, left, and Matthias Luafutu in the movie “Coming Home in the Dark.”
(Stan Alley / Dark Sky Films)

Though it was made in New Zealand, the raw psychological thriller “Coming Home in the Dark” resembles a movie from the heyday of Australia’s 1970s and ’80s “Ozploitation” wave, when a handful of creative, fearless filmmakers told intense and violent stories, often rooted in the country’s complicated history.

Directed by James Ashcroft (who also co-wrote the script with Eli Kent, based on an Owen Marshall short story), “Coming Home in the Dark” doesn’t reveal what it’s about right away. The film starts as the story of an ordinary family — high school teacher Alan “Hoaggie” Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson), his wife, Jill (Miriama McDowell), and her teenage sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) from a previous relationship — who are out for a picnic at a scenic location when they get accosted at gunpoint by an eloquent oddball named Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his sullen sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu).

At first, this seems like a random act of mayhem: two psychopaths who stumble across some nice folks in the middle of nowhere and decide to take advantage. But as Mandrake forces his victims to hop into their car and go for a ride, it soon becomes clear he and Tubs are targeting Hoaggie for a reason.


Ashcroft puts a little too much narrative weight on the secret connection between Hoaggie and his abductors. Though the movie does fairly quickly hint that there’s more going on here — related to an old national scandal — a lot of the conversation in the back half of “Coming Home in the Dark” becomes repetitive, as Mandrake and Tubs poke at their prey. They’re trying to get him to admit that decades ago, he may have been a part of something awful; but the payoff to all this grilling isn’t quite as cathartic as it was probably intended to be.

Still, the parts of “Coming Home in the Dark” about confronting guilt aren’t what make the movie so harrowing. Instead, what matters is that Ashcroft and his cast — and especially Gillies as the menacing and charismatic Mandrake — excel at drawing out the moment-to-moment tension of a crime in progress.

From the second Mandrake and Tubs wander up to Hoaggie’s picnic spot — unnerving the family with talk about how being someplace so private is both a gift and a hazard — “Coming Home in the Dark” challenges the audience to think and feel along with Hoaggie.

Can he make a move against Mandrake? Is there even a move to make? How complicit is Hoaggie in any harm that comes to the people he loves? This is ultimately a movie about a man weighing — and often regretting — his increasingly narrowing choices.

'Coming Home in the Dark'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Available Friday on digital and VOD