As more than a few commentators have noted, the specter of Michael Haneke — that gloomy Austrian known for his austere, severe aesthetic and ice-cold view of humanity — has loomed over a number of titles at this year’s festival. Here now is Coming Home in the Dark, a deeply unsettling bit of Ozploitation (although it’s actually from New Zealand, so Kiwiploitation?) that begins like a distaff version of Haneke’s own Funny Games by way of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek. Out for a weekend drive and a picnic in the middle of nowhere with his family, schoolteacher Hoagie (Erik Thomson), wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their two teenaged sons (real life siblings Billy and Frankie Paratene) are suddenly set upon by a pair of ominous strangers. Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) is chatty and polite and all ingratiating, creepy charm; Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) is mostly silent, standing off to the side, quietly observing. What follows is 80 minutes of pure survival horror, as the family is kidnapped by the two men and taken on a nightmarish odyssey to destinations unknown.
Adapting a short story by Owen Marshall, director James Ashcroft, along with co-writer Eli Kent, have stripped this horrific scenario down to the barest of bones, deftly sketching in believable, even likable characters in a short amount of time and then immediately tossing them into a meat grinder. Thomson and McDowell are fine performers, conveying their characters’ frantic desperation, but also their intelligence as they try to figure a way out of their predicament. Gillies in turn gives a fantastically unhinged performance as a talkative psychopath; his constant needling and pointed questions gradually reveal a kind of method to his madness. There’s not much plot to speak of, and to give away any more would be a disservice to potential viewers, but there’s a point to the cruelty here. It’s the return of the repressed, that favorite genre trope, here wrapped up in a kind of philosophical debate over cycles of institutional violence and the difference (if any) between carrying out an action and simply allowing it to be carried out. Needless to say, Hoagie and his family haven’t been targeted randomly, and teasing out that shared history is the main drive of the otherwise minimal narrative. For all the misery up on screen, Coming Home in the Dark isn’t particularly violent; taking a cue from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, certain acts occur just offscreen or so quickly that you’ll miss them if you blink. Instead, it’s the constant threat of potential violence that shreds the nerves. Coming Home in the Dark isn’t breaking any new ground here, but it’s so good at summoning up a kind of primordial dread through precisely tuned, even elegant, set pieces that one has to admire it. It’s a film that feels genuinely dangerous, like anything could happen to anyone at any time, and that’s no small feat. If the ending feels a bit pat, a little too tidy in its morality, it’s still a helluva of a journey getting there.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.