“You know, later on when you’re looking back at this occasion, I think that right there’s gonna be the moment you wish you’d done something.”
If one witnesses abuse but does not intervene, are they just as bad as the perpetrator? One of several questions raised, Coming Home in the Dark forces viewers to explore the potential differentiation between active and passive whilst characters face the dark underbelly of systemic abuse and the following cycle of violence.
Based on a short story by Owen Marshall, the film’s director James Ashcroft has alongside Eli Kent crafted a script that combines elements of psychological horror and thriller to present a story that’s equally haunting, both in its explored themes and how it manages to get under viewers’ skin through its execution.
Alan ‘Hoaggie’ Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their teenage sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) are spending a beautiful day outside. When pausing at an idyllic scenery for a picnic, they are disrupted by an enigmatic man and his mostly silent obedient sidekick. Drastically the tone in the air shifts, turning the initially peaceful atmosphere into an ominous threat of danger. The two drifters, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), calmly rob the family, who accedes to all demands without trying to fight back. Just as they are about to part ways, Mandrake overhears Maika calling Alan “Hoaggie,” which awakens something in him. In an egregious opening of what will be a long day, Mandrake kills the sons and abducts the parents.
While it certainly isn’t the first time viewers see these types of stories, the film does set itself apart from the crowd, predominantly through the questions it raises. During the car ride to the currently undisclosed destination, Mandrake lets it slip that he knows Hoaggie is a teacher. Realising that both men were enrolled at the same school — one notorious for physical, psychological, and sexual abuse — Hoaggie insists that he was unaware of the harm. His remark is met with disdain, but with each new piece of information exposed during their drive, loyalties begin to shift.
During a stop, Mandrake threatens to shoot Jill as a way to pressure the truth out of Hoaggie. Caving in, he admits that he was aware of the abuse and starts talking about a specific incident he witnessed. The occurrence involved a young boy who tattooed a swastika on his arm, only to have it forcibly scrubbed off his skin with a nylon brush, traumatising all students. According to Hoaggie, he could not do anything to stop this. Instead, he stood by and, more importantly, allowed authoritarian figures to keep taking advantage of the power imbalance to feed their insatiable hunger for domination.
Since viewers can assume that the tattoo referred to Nazism instead of divinity and spirituality, it’s easy to understand why one would react strongly due to everything it represents. However, the situation itself poses a question that is rarely entertained yet regularly echoed throughout the film, namely: Who is fit to decide which punishment fits the crime? Did the boy deserve the torture? Couldn’t it have been handled differently, in a more productive way to try and actually make a difference?
Even though Hoaggie wasn’t directly involved, he was fully aware of the different types of abuse committed by his colleagues. When Jill learns about her husband’s secret she’s shaken and rebuffs his later attempts at contact. Eventually, she jumps into a nearby river, choosing to hurt herself rather than allow the captivity to continue — whether it’s the physical one or the metaphorical one she might feel through being complicit in knowing her husband’s ugly truth.
Reaching the destination and walking through the now-abandoned building of the boys’ home — seemingly about to end everything where it began — Hoaggie admits that he believed the tattooed boy deserved his punishment. Once again, it’s a statement that evokes follow-up questions. Does it mean that he also believes the other boys deserved their punishments? Possibly not exclusively, but there might have been something within him that entertained the idea that some of the boys might have deserved it, derived from that other time he thought the punishment fit the crime. “We all look the same to you, you all look the same to us,” Mandrake even exclaims at one point without much resistance.
At one point, Mandrake and Hoaggie discuss Frankenstein, with the latter denouncing that Mandrake missed the point of Mary Shelley’s story as monsters are not made, a statement that helps to try to dismiss his own potential part in creating them. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, a tale about the repercussions of actions, the monster is born innocent. However, because of his treatment, he becomes the brute everyone sees him as. Although the discussion of nature versus nurture is regularly debated, it’s undeniable that certain behaviour is made by their circumstances.
Set in an isolated yet picturesque landscape, the beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand terrain acts in juxtaposition to the horror carried out and witnessed throughout the film. The duality of the setting — not solely in how different it looks during the day versus night but also in whose company — mirrors the duality in its characters. All humans are capable of violence, albeit not always to the same extent. Furthermore, just because some people might have committed criminal acts or behaved undesirably in some aspects of their lives, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve never done anything good in their life as well.
Coming Home in the Dark is not a traditional narrative of good versus evil. Instead, it gets increasingly blurrier and flourishes in greyish moral ambiguities. As in real life, situations, or people, are rarely as simplistic or one-dimensional as one might sometimes desire. Compared to Mandrake, who finds pleasure (yet will never reach sufficient satisfaction) in his actions, Tubs feels guilt. Despite compliance, there’s some reluctance evident in Tubs’ behaviour, as he mainly seems to continue under the impression that it’ll eventually result in closure and peace.
From the beginning, it’s hinted there is some kind of conflict between the two drifters, a perception that only deepens as Tubs grows more disgusted with the trail left behind them. While the actions themselves are starting to become unbearable, it’s the interactions with Jill that crawl deepest underneath Tubs’ skin. One of them is when she starts questioning him about her deceased sons’ bodies; he becomes visibly agitated. Undeniably, there’s something respectful about his earlier treatment of the bodies. This is particularly evident in how he handles them and even carries out a Māori custom around death, cleansing his hands and following it up by sprinkling himself with water afterwards, to wash himself from the sacredness, before leaving.
Furthermore, when Jill later tells him that she doesn’t think places like the boys’ home are suitable for anyone, it comes across as genuine rather than a hidden plea to gain trust. Compare this to when Hoaggie, rightfully yet less genuinely, questions if Tubs always does what he’s told in an attempt to get under his skin. Jill also voices a concern that seems to resonate with Tubs, concluding that even though she believes that there’s a difference between doing something bad and letting it happen, she’s convinced that they both come from a similar place.
The film ends where it all began all those years ago, albeit not according to the original plan, as Tubs kills Mandrake instead of Mandrake killing Hoaggie. Essentially, there could be several reasons why Tubs ends it but, deep down, he understands that by choosing to help Mandrake — either actively or passively — he was just as guilty. By letting Mandrake continue, he was doing exactly what Hoaggie and all those other teachers had done, namely letting violence occur without interfering.
In the end, Tubs kills Mandrake and leaves Hoaggie alive, after telling him, “I hate this place.” A statement likely referring to more than solely its literal meaning, in the end, Tubs makes the conscious choice to forge a different path through the action of choosing to end Mandrake’s life instead of Hoaggie’s, thus ending the cycle of violence and giving himself a chance at an attempt to live a different life. After all, he has seen up close that revenge doesn’t bring closure; it solely brings temporary relief.
In itself, coming home in the dark should mean that one is coming home to something that feels safe, but it’s naïve to not recognise that the home festers just as prominent monsters as the darkness itself. Coming Home in the Dark explores themes personal to Aotearoa New Zealand, including the country’s history of abuse taking place at faith-based and state care institutions. Whilst always important to bring to light, its significance is further emphasised through actor Luafutu, whose own experiences along with the ones endured by his father Fa’amoana, prove both the magnitude of the systemic pain and how important it is to address it.
A tale of violence that begets more violence, Coming Home in the Dark is a brutal look at the repercussions of watching violence happen without trying to stop it. Undeniably brutal in tone yet not excessive in explicitly showing the bloodshed, the film tells an atmospheric story disrupting the notion that people are rarely as safe, or righteous, as they would like to think that they are.