Violence is often seen as the ultimate form of catharsis. Particularly when it comes to portraying men who have been traumatized or mistreated, the most satisfying form of cinematic retribution is likely the one that spills blood—and lots of it. New Zealand director James Ashcroft’s debut Coming Home in the Dark has a universally horrifying premise—a picnicking nuclear family suddenly taken hostage by two violent, armed men in their unassuming SUV—but challenges the viewer to see beyond the black-and-white contrast of “evil” and “innocent.”
Based on a short story by fellow Kiwi writer Owen Marshall, Ashcroft and co-writer Eli Kent buttress the anxiety-drenched plot with a topical real-life scandal involving rampant sexual abuse in New Zealand’s boarding schools and state-run religious institutions, certain allegations spanning back to the 1950s. Dilworth School in Auckland is just one of the latest to be investigated for sexual and physical abuse, with all perpetrators conveniently having name suppression in the media. Though these allegations are some of the most recent, they are not without precedent, as Marylands School in Christchurch previously paid $5.1 million to survivors of sexual misconduct back in 2006. However, many of the perpetrators were either too old, mentally unstable or powerful to stand trial, with one, Brother Roger Maloney, even being reinstated into an Australian branch of his religious order after serving just 13 months in prison.
While New Zealand is far ahead of other countries in the pursuit of validating the experiences of those who endured severe childhood trauma and holding their abusers accountable, there is a definite lack of discussion on how Maori children were particularly mistreated at the hands of these predatory men and still continue to be funneled into a system that has perpetually failed them. A 2019 Guardian article detailing the current inquiry on sexual assault in New Zealand institutions reveals that Maori children are still overwhelmingly separated from their families, totaling a whopping 60% of all children in state-run facilities to this day.
A Maori filmmaker himself, Ashcroft’s film is absolutely laden with interesting questions about who can wield violence for sanctimonious retribution versus those who are sold a narrative of justice which does not serve them. Even in the face of a national inquiry—which is expected to be presented to New Zealand’s government in 2023—there is little being done to ensure that Indigenous people are not unnecessarily targeted to fill these institutions in the first place.
Coming Home in the Dark is best experienced as a blind-watch, especially as a film that starts off guns a-blazing and only loses steam as it goes on. While it reveals itself to be more interested in the viewer grappling with whom they are rooting for and why, it can’t help but sputter in the third act, the engine blown from the unsurpassable terror it invokes early on. The pointedness of the film’s aims means it trades out the unnerving ambiguity of its undeniable cinematic forerunner—Michael Haneke’s Funny Games—for a more straightforward pulpy didacticism, making the subsequent desensitizing effects of the violence an unintended outcome rather than the entire point. Many revenge movies interrogate the efficacy of vengeance, leaving the question of its usefulness more or less to the viewer. Coming Home in the Dark is content to leave this query to the side. The film doesn’t flinch from the premise that revenge must be enacted, instead chewing on the nuances of how and by whom it should be carried out, simply bringing viewers along for the ride.
Director: James Ashcroft
Writer: Eli Kent, James Ashcroft
Stars: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Áine Rose Daly
Release Date: January 30, 2021 (Sundance Film Festival)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.