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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Coming Home in the Dark’ is Here to Keep you Awake at Night

You’re not going to want to visit New Zealand anytime soon after watching Coming Home in the Darkthe lean and mean debut feature from director James Ashcroft. If the Lake Barryessa scene in Zodiac chilled you to the core, the opening act of Ashcroft’s film is going to put you right back into that headspace. When a family takes a little picnic together while on a road trip, things take a frightening turn for the worse with the arrival of two mysterious men who have nothing but bad intentions. 

Ashcroft’s film isn’t here to give you a layered, complicated story to unravel as we move from scene to scene. He sets up the premise quick and easy, and then barrels through with a nightmare scenario that is going to have you questioning that next planned vacation with your loved ones. There’s some pros and cons with this approach, as it sets up a very intense opening section, but then starts to wear itself out as time stretches on to the conclusion. 

Co-written by Eli Kent, the story does try to add in a little extra something when the bad guys start to reveal the history of the family’s patriarch, namely his involvement with a reform school for young boys some decades ago. Questions about revenge and the culpability of your actions, no matter how far in the past, are brought to the surface, yet these ideas never feel like much more than window dressing to give the characters something to talk about. Ultimately, the reasons these guys have for doing what they’re doing don’t matter, and perhaps it would be even more chilling if a motivation was never hinted at, and they were just some unknowable force of impending doom, as in The Strangers

Along with the striking cinematography from Matt Henley, which gives the movie a visual splendor that you wouldn’t expect with subject matter this grimy, the biggest positive of the film is the terrifying performance from Daniel Gillies. While the other cast members can be hit or miss, this veteran of CW dramas The Vampire Diaries and The Originals gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder how you’ve never seen him in anything before. As the strategist of the two villains, Gillies brings the necessary menace to truly make you fearful of what this guy is going to do next. It’s a benefit that the movie capitalizes on fully, allowing the performance to patch up some of the holes it has elsewhere. 

Despite running at a slim 93 minutes, Coming Home in the Dark can lag in some places, as we retread familiar scenes from other abduction movies of this type. We see moments of potential escape gone awry, moments where you want to shout at the screen because the characters are making obvious mistakes, and moments where somehow things go from bad to even worse. Ashcroft isn’t packing any surprises into this tidy little package. Nevertheless, with his debut he shows a knack for bringing visceral thrills to a genre audience craving some gnarly fun in the middle of the night. 

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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