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James Ashcroft’s debut feature length film, Coming Home in the Dark, which played at this year’s Sundance film festival, shows that humans can still be punished for misdoings in the past in a tantalising and methodical manner. Ashcroft’s film begins with a pleasant family who are enjoying the outback in New Zealand, where the director is from, before the self-proclaimed Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and partner Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) hold them ransom. It isn’t immediately clear for what purpose, however Mandrake’s tenacity for intimidation and fear is immediately realised as he threatens the family with his shotgun.
The film is based on a short story of the same name written by Owen Marshall. Throughout it we follow Mandrake and Tubs as they roll through the countryside in the darkness attempting to reconcile Hoagie (Erik Thomson) who is haunted by an ill-fated mistake from his past. The film straddles genres, appearing as both thriller and horror, and it was able to feature in Sundance Film Festival’s midnight selection earlier in the year.
Coming Home in the Dark is gripping due to the confrontational characterisation Gillies brings to the role of Mandrake and sincerity Thomson gives to Hoaggie. Ashcroft is able to portray Mandrake in a chilling way through his overgrown moustache and beard. Gillies further accentuates these features through his foreboding and lengthy monologues. Thomson on the other hand embodies everything a humble middle-class father would, often in the position of submission to Mandrakes reign he acts out his character in a way which is different to the stereotypical father figures we are accustomed to seeing on television. Hoagie’s lack of power in the film adds yet another layer of suspense.
A facet of indie filmmaking is its ability to be rough and unfinished which felt the case with Ashcroft’s shooting itself. Whilst the cinematography was spectacular it often felt there wasn’t enough coverage to capture some of the scene’s gripping moments. A noteworthy example was when the family’s picnic is shattered by Mandrake and the scene shifted between a few shots often with dialogue being spoken outside the frame making it disjointed. With such a nuanced and dialogue-laden script coverage does becomeimportant.
As mentioned earlier the cinematography was evocative and incorporated a sprawling palette of dark hues- Matt Henley’s contribution was clever and effective. Importantly, given the film was set in the self-titled dark Henley was required to be innovative with how to incorporate light sources which appeared natural. At times there were obfuscated torches and a striking service station in the middle of nowhere.
The screenplay was tricky and given Ashcroft and Marshall (the author of the short story) stretched the plot out into a feature length screenplay it often felt like plot points were repeating themselves. This was particularly notable with the ongoing disappearance and reappearance of characters.
Coming Home in the Dark is worth a look if scintillating drama is up your alley. Ashcroft has done a good job directing his first feature length film and the film will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.
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