'Coming Home In The Dark' Review: An Unbearably Tense Thriller That Sticks With You [Sundance 2021]

A one and a half-hour gut-punch, Coming Home in the Dark is bleak, tense, and often unshakable. It sticks with you; haunts you. Leaves you feeling restless. Anxiety-inducing and frequently unpleasant, it travels down dark roads, and while you can likely guess the destination, getting there is no less unnerving. In James Ashcroft's film, a family trip to the picturesque, and remote, New Zealand coastline turns deadly and spirals out of control into one very long night. You won't exactly enjoy this movie, but you might very well be awed by its emotional power.

Right before the chaos truly begins in Coming Home in the Dark, a character nonchalantly says, "When you look back, this will be the moment you'll wish you'd done something." Those words become haunting in the immediate moments that follow, and hang over the entire film – a chilling reminder that maybe all of this could've been avoided, and less blood could've been spilled, if just one tiny thing had gone slightly differently.

As Coming Home in the Dark begins, teacher Alan "Hoaggie" Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and Jill's teen sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) are piled into the car and headed towards the coastline. The boys bicker good-naturedly in the backseat while Hoaggie and Jill seem at ease, playful even. They're a clumsy but seemingly sweet family unit, and they're on the type of boring family trip that should, by all accounts, be uneventful. Maybe even forgettable. But it ends up being anything but. Because no sooner have the family sprawled out on a picnic blanket on the grass by a body of water than two strangers come strolling up to them.

The strangers – the talkative Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and the mostly quiet Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) – seemingly materialize from thin air, and immediately spell trouble. It's here where the tension begins to tighten, and it never lets up. Ashcroft uses the beautiful scenery to heighten the terror – yes, it's pretty to look out, but it's also so beautiful because it's so remote – and completely cut-off. The family is alone out here. No one can suddenly come to their rescue. It recalls the ominous Lake Berryessa murder scene in David Fincher's Zodiac and has all the unbearable energy of Michael Haneke's Funny Games. Cinematographer Matt Henley renders the picture in magic-hour light that can feel beautiful or threatening at a moment's notice.

Mandrake and Tubs seem mostly a nuisance at first – they're vaguely threatening when they arrive but not to the point of no return. That changes quickly when Mandrake produces a rifle and soon proves he has every intention of using it. And so the stage is set for a road trip from hell, with the family ending up in the car with Mandrake and Tubs, winding down empty rural roads as the sun sinks deeper and deeper and darkness takes hold.

What do the captors want? Are they random psychopaths who just happened to stumble upon Hoaggie and his family, or do they have a more insidious agenda? As the car rolls on it become more apparent that Mandrake and Tubs have a history with Hoaggie although he himself doesn't seem to recognize it. Thomson's performance is crucial here – we have to believe in Hoaggie but also believe he could be keeping secrets, and the actor never misses his mark. It's a wonderfully natural performance, counterbalanced with Gillies' whispery, off-kilter work as the icy Mandrake.

Coming Home in the Dark's tension builds so consistently that you begin to wonder if it can really keep this up until the end credits roll. The answer is no – eventually, the road trip hits a few speedbumps and slows down altogether, robbing the film of its cruel forward momentum. These concluding sections keep Coming Home in the Dark from being a complete success, but it comes damn close. All that intensity and hopelessness linger long after the film has faded away./Film rating: 7.5 out of 10