An expensive new car slouches on the side of a deserted country road, unoccupied and unattended, while one passenger door hangs open, creaking disconsolately in the afternoon breeze. It’s the kind of opening image that immediately warns you the film to come is up to nothing good, or at least nothing pleasant: “Coming Home in the Dark” never tells us who was behind the wheel of that abandoned car, though it gives us enough indirect detail to paint a pretty vivid, stomach-turning picture of what went down. At first glance, New Zealand filmmaker James Ashcroft’s unforgiving, tightly wound debut appears to be a nihilistic horror excursion in the blood-leaking vein of “Wolf Creek,” before its torture-porn trappings give way to a moral weight as unanticipated by the characters as it is by the audience.
Though it’s plenty nasty and nervy enough to earn its spot in Sundance’s Midnight program, Ashcroft’s film isn’t that much of a genre crowd-pleaser. Extrapolated from a short story by celebrated New Zealand writer Owen Marshall, its gore is brutal but sober throughout, building to a muted, ambiguous payoff that will leave some duly discomfited and others simply dissatisfied — with a couple of needling questions to debate between them.
Niche distribution and further festival spots should follow, though “Coming Home in the Dark” chiefly promises bigger, more full-bodied things from its cool-blooded writer-director. It could also prove a career-changer for star Daniel Gillies, a Kiwi-Canadian TV team player from such series as “Virgin River” and “The Vampire Diaries,” here given the spotlight — a dim, mostly shadow-casting spotlight, admittedly — as an unflappable but queasily human screen psycho.
Ashcroft and co-writer Eli Kent start things slow, following that shivery roadside intro with more reassuringly everyday scenes in a different vehicle: Middle-aged schoolteachers Alan (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell) are setting out on a road trip with their lightly squabbling teenage sons Jordan and Maika (Frankie and Billy Paratene), flustered only briefly when a cop gives them a speed warning. Reaching an idyllic, unpeopled lakeside nature reserve, they stop for a robust hike followed by a late-afternoon picnic: It’s practically an advertisement for the New Zealand tourist board, though that magnificently serene, tawny landscape takes on a desolate air the second two rangy male figures emerge from the wilderness, closing in on this harmless family gathering with immediately hostile intent.
Lavishly bearded and khaki-clad — with only a pair of silver hoop earrings to distract from his terse, all-business manner — the more vocal of the pair (Gillies) introduces himself as Mandrake. The other (Matthias Luafutu), a lanky Maori man with a silent, haunted demeanor, is referred to only as Tubs, and appears to occupy a position somewhere between accomplice and man Friday — introducing a note of white-Indigenous tension that bleeds into all the misfortune to come, without ever being directly addressed. The men are armed, unfriendly and unappeased when the family hand over their car keys, phones and wallets: With a couple of brisk, unceremonious gunshots, they clearly announce they have a more protracted ordeal in mind for them.
While Ashcroft and Kent’s narrative doesn’t hinge on fussy breakneck twists, detailing things much further would rather betray the impact of the script’s solemn, steady, escalating trickle of information — as the film pivots into a brittle, brooding nighttime road movie, its destination and purpose both unknown. Does Mandrake know more about this family than he lets on, or is he merely a sadistic drifter who grimly chanced upon them? Both possibilities are kept in play over the course of a long night’s journey into day, during which messy baggage is unpacked by more than one party: As in so many horror films of this variety, trauma is the bone uncovered beneath so much red, shredded flesh.
If characterization is lean on either side of the conflict — we learn little of the family besides their pleasant ordinariness, while Mandrake and Tubs are typically chilly, taunting horror executioners — the gutsy, physically bruised commitment of the performances keeps the viewer immersed in the fallout. Gillies gets the most to relish here, but doesn’t overplay his hand: There are embers of outright rage in his cool cruelty.
Ashcroft’s filmmaking likewise holds back, more concerned with cultivating clammy, dusky atmosphere than reveling in grisly set pieces: The film’s most startling acts of violence are shown in aloof, matter-of-fact fashion, often held in unexcitable long shot. Only in a finale that tiptoes gingerly around the idea of catharsis, with blood left on many hands as several fates hang uncertainly in the balance, does Ashcroft’s restraint threaten to work against him — though perhaps it’s the audience’s idea of savage release that is being reproached most of all.