DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for Coming Home in the Dark.

Would you place an abuser and bystander on the same pedestal? Can one atone for sins witnessed on the sidelines? Coming Home in the Dark, directed by James Ashcroft with a script from Eli Kent and Ashcroft, answers these questions. 

Ashcroft and Kent adapt their screenplay from a short story by Owen Marshall with a stellar cast featuring Daniel GilliesErik ThomsonMiriama McDowell and Matthias Luafutu

Hoaggie (Thomson) and his wife Jill (McDowell) are enjoying a road trip through the idyllic New Zealand countryside with their sons when two drifters ambush them, Mandrake (Gillies) and Tubs (Luafutu). What transpires is a road trip of a different sort — a nightmarish, violent journey into the past. 

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Coming Home in the Dark doesn’t beat around the bush, and the action takes flight before the 10-minute mark. Horrifying twists await at every turn with a solid story from the get-go. 

While the writing maintains momentum for most of the film, the true shining light is its star players. Admittedly, I’ve only seen Gillies as the stoic and snazzily-dressed Elijah Mikaelson on The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. He’s a far cry from the calm and collected vampire, infusing Mandrake with a sinister nonchalance. 

Still of Miriama McDowell in James Ashcroft's Coming Home in the Dark.

Pictured: Miriama McDowell in James Ashcroft’s Coming Home in the Dark.

Gillies could’ve gone down the “mustache-twirling, grandiose villain” route, chewing the scenery and playing to the balcony. Instead, you see a raging storm linger beneath Mandrake’s surface, simmering anger ready to unleash at any moment. It’s far more interesting than outright ire. Everything, including his accent, posture and gait, is different than what we’ve seen Gillies do in the past. He’s sensational. 

Amid the torrent of bloodshed and abject violence, Gillies evokes our sympathy for such a dark character. It reminds us that everyone in Coming Home in the Dark is a victim — protagonists and antagonists alike. 

McDowell produces stunning work, genuinely encompassing the phrase, “Go big or go home.” She’s all piss and vinegar. McDowell exhibits an impressive array of emotions that brim with honesty, tenderness and gut-wrenching vulnerability. 

Thomson, our anchor, runs the gamut of emotional fortitude, vacillating between a “cooler heads prevail” approach and all-out desperation. Lastly, Luafutu plays the most intriguing character of the bunch, the often silent and brooding Tubs. Luafutu carries a quiet gravitas, and he injects Tubs with nuance and occasional flashes of potential remorse. 

All in all, everyone brings their A-game. 

Still of Matthias Luafutu in James Ashcroft's Coming Home in the Dark.

Pictured: Matthias Luafutu in James Ashcroft’s Coming Home in the Dark.

Coming Home in the Dark‘s unflinching and sharp cutaways contribute to the tense, edge-of-your-seat feeling that’s pervasive throughout. Shots of the beautiful New Zealand landscape and dark, visceral imagery play on the stark contrast between Hoaggie’s quiet family life and his past life. 

This film is more than just a horror or thriller — it teeters on the edge of psychological drama. As we peel back the layers and dig deep into Hoaggie’s past, Coming Home in the Dark artfully probes the deepest parts of our psyche. The details we thought we’d forgotten long ago. 

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The movie sends us on a pulsating, nail-biting ride until the bitter end. It sinks its claws in you and refuses to let go. 

That unsettling feeling stays with you, with the unexpected bouts of violence never straddling the line of gratuitousness. As uncomfortable as the violence is, there’s a reason behind every act. 

I suppose the one notable flaw I could find in Coming Home in the Dark is its ending.

It just … ends. 

Still of Daniel Gillies and Matthias Luafutu in James Ashcroft's Coming Home in the Dark.

Pictured: Daniel Gillies and Matthias Luafutu in James Ashcroft’s Coming Home in the Dark.

While we get to the resolution, it feels like there’s no natural closure. But perhaps that was Ashcroft’s intention. Sometimes life comes at you fast, and sometimes you’re left with more questions than answers. Maybe Ashcroft wanted us to sit with our complicated feelings for as long as possible.

Or it’s to drive home the fact that, again, everyone in this film is a victim of some sort. To that end, there’s no real winner or loser because all of our players are in pain. 

Coming Home in the Dark is a fast-paced, gripping, profoundly unsettling film that gives its heroes and foes multiple facets. It’ll stick to you like glue. 

Coming Home in the Dark hits US theaters on Friday, October 1. 

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Melody McCune
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