A Horrid Tale Set in the Rural Mountains of New Zealand
Coming Home in the Dark ambitiously set out to explore the intricately delicate relationship between one’s past and present. A theme boosted by the cinematography and acting but limited by the plot and script.
Coming Home in the Dark, directed by James Ashcroft, written by Eli Kent, and produced by Light in the Dark Productions, was based on the short story by New Zealanist Owen Marshell and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2021. Starring Daniel Gillies as Mandrake, Erik Thomson as Hoaggie, Miriama McDowell as Jill, and Mattihas Luafutu as Tubs, this psychological thriller follows a school teachers harrowing experience as he and his family are attacked and taken on a joy ride by two drifters who force him to confront his past.
The Great Plot and its Less than Satisfying Delivery
The movie begins in the countryside of New Zealand, somewhere along the coast, and follows a family as they road trip through the idyllic mountains and the supreme coastline. All seems fine and dandy until two drifters appear and demand the keys to their car and any food they have to offer. Hoaggie, his wife Jill, and their two sons comply and are seemingly about to be let free until one of their sons mutters Hoaggies name, a small but significant moment that hints at the eternalness of a name that spans both the past, present, and future. Mandrake recognizes the name Hoaggie and forces him and his family on a road trip that not only has a literal destination that is not revealed until the end of the film but is also a dark metaphor for the internal journey one faces when reconciling with their past.
The first half of the plot was mysterious and gripping as viewrers followed Hoaggie’s family on another, darker, road trip. Why did Mandrake hate Hoaggie so much? What has Hoaggie kept secret from everyone, including his own family? But as the secrets revolving around Hoaggie’s past reveal themselves midway through the film is when the pacing and plot fell off. Characters began to do and say things that didn’t quite make sense, it was dramatic where it didn’t need to be, and vice versa, and the plot suddenly became unrelatable for a film that was seeking to explore the very relatable theme of humanity’s potential to do good and evil as they tie into our connections with the past and present. The suspense was gone too early in the film, and it felt as if the directors were filling the time before the climax. If suspense was held for the entirety of the film, the ending may have been more chilling, satisfying, and powerful.
The Script Held Everyone Back
There were a few actors in the film that carried the movie. Daniel Gillies as Mandrake gave a superb performance that was both compelling and revolting, a combination that makes for a convincing bad guy. However, the shining star of the cast was Tubs, played by Luafutu. Ironically, Tubs was a side character in a plot that focuses mainly on Mandrake and Hoaggie’s intertwined past. But there were a few reasons he shined where the others didn’t. One, Tubs was a quiet character, which meant that Luafutu had to rely on facial expressions to convey emotions, a challenge in and of itself. And two, the script was not where it needed to be to elevate this film, and the fact that Tubs said maybe two sentences the whole movie meant that he wasn’t as bogged down by it as the rest of the cast was. His character arc was the most relatable and believable.
Then there was Hoaggie and his family, who delivered far less compelling performances than their counterparts, Tubs and Mandrake. The actors for Hoaggie and Jill gave deficient performances that were unrelatable and confusing. There were moments of brilliance between the two, but they were not as compelling to watch. And perhaps it was due to the script, which was uninteresting and plain. At one point in the movie, Mandrake mentions that he read the book Frankenstein once, and Hoaggie asks if Mandrake identified as the monster. Symbolism and metaphors are part of the skeleton that makes up a good movie, but if those symbols and motifs are given to the audience on a silver platter, it loses their punch. Perhaps if the movie followed the show don’t tell theme, the script might have packed a bigger knuckle sandwich.
Beautiful New Zealand Landscape and the Power of Cinematography
The cinematography for Coming Home in the Dark was shot by Matt Henley. His wide-angle shots of the New Zealand landscape and the shaky videography from shots of the moving car was the shining point of the film. The movie begins with a shot of a silhouette sitting atop a small hill with the sky a blazing explosion of color in the background. It’s beautiful, but the music adds an underlying layer of suspense as a foreshadowing of things to come. The film then cuts to a series of wide-angle shots that captures the beauty of New Zealand’s hilly coastline, pairing it with moments of Hoaggie and his family as they innocently go about their road trip.
However, as things take a dark turn, both literally and figuratively, and Hoaggie’s family is forced on a road trip with Tubs and Mandrake as night begins to set in, the shots become more narrow and shaky, reflecting the turbulence that the family is experiencing. At moments, the camera is above the car looking at the winding road disappearing underneath the headlights. It’s eerie and reinforces the suspense of the movie. Where is Mandrake taking them? There is no one on the road, how are they ever going to get help? Here, the concept of show, don’t tell shines.
However, the best shots of the whole film are the beginning and the ending, which mirror one another. Except at the end of the film, we know who the silhouette belongs to, and we know it is a sunrise, not a sunset. There is such power in these two shots. The idea that our past and present are more connected than we might choose to acknowledge is heavily displayed in the two sunrise scenes and in another one. Earlier in the movie, there is a shot of a racetrack, symbolizing the idea that our lives bleed into one another like a loop. Everything is connected, and everything we do comes around again. This concept is displayed in the ideas of sunsets and sunrises, both times in the day where day and night bleed into one another, much like our past, present, and future, a fitting start and end to the movie.
Coming Home in the Dark is Not For Everyone
Coming home in the dark shot for the moon and landed in the stars. Creating and directing a movie that follows a harrowing road trip is no easy feat, and there is certainly a lot of room for error. Though Coming Home in the Dark missed the mark on a few things, there were definitely still aspects of the film to rave about.
Coming Home in the Dark can be watched on Netflix and Amazon Prime with a subscription. Beware, this film is not for the faint of heart as there is much cussing and violence, be wary, but be ready to soak in the stunning New Zealand landscape.
Coming Home In The Dark (2023) Official Light In The Dark Productions
|I am an aspiring author living and working out of Honolulu, Hawaii. I received my bachelor's degree in Art History at Westmont College and then pursued a master's in Museum Studies at the University of Hawaii. I am currently working on a few novels, and am thankful for the opportunity to expand my creative writing voice at Dead Talk Live.|