‘Coming Home in the Dark’ Review: No Picnic

Not infrequently, films set and shot in the Antipodes make a convincing case that one ought to never leave one’s house. Think of the scenarios of “Wake In Fright” (kangaroos and lunatics running amok), “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (girls-school adventurers disappear), “A Cry in the Dark” (dingo, baby). Directed by James Ashcroft from a script he wrote with Eli Kent (based on a short story by Owen Marshall), “Coming Home in the Dark” doesn’t take long in demonstrating that sometimes a day trip to high New Zealand spaces is not worth the views.

Beginning with an ominous shot of a Mercedes abandoned at roadside, “Coming Home” picks up with a family of four in a different vehicle. In the back seat, the sons of Jill (Miriama McDowell) and Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), bicker about music. Aside from that, all is friendly and well. Until the family lays out blankets at a picnic spot.

Then along comes Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), a hirsute fellow whose long, earth-colored overcoat makes him look as if he’s stepped out of a spaghetti Western. Lagging a little behind him is a Maori man, Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). Tubs is exceptionally taciturn. Mandrake totes a rifle and has enough talk for the both of them.

So begins an appalling feature-length ordeal connected to Haoggie’s past. Between excruciatingly suspenseful set pieces, the themes of sin, guilt and expiation get an oblique workout.

While the whole thing is ruthlessly well done, it also sometimes seems to lean into a kind of moral relativism. Gillies’s performance as Mandrake, while remarkable in its way, radiates a kind of movie-killer cool that doesn’t quite square with the vengeful indignation that ostensibly motivates the character.

Coming Home in the Dark
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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