Coming Home in the Dark is an excellent film, but the problem is that we can reveal very little without treading on spoilers.

Based on a short story from an award-winning anthology book by author Owen Marshall, the film tells the story of a family who are assaulted by two strangers while on a day trip in a remote regional area in New Zealand. The kids are left behind while the parents are bound and taken hostage in their own car. What unfolds is simple yet calculated narrative that takes the form of a road trip. The identity of the captors is unknown and their motive is obscure, and as they travel through the night things unravel, secrets are revealed and the danger escalates towards an intense final act.

We’re being intentionally ambiguous so as not to ruin the experience for you. And while you can discover some revelations for yourself online, our advice would be to watch Coming Home in the Dark without any preconceived notions. It’s an exceptional experience that’s not only viscerally impressive, but also richly layered with subtext and deeply bedded themes of emotional trauma, retribution and the loss of innocence.

Director James Ashcroft makes an impressive feature debut, having previously directed short films as well as acting in movies like Black Sheep and Fresh Meat, and makes his mark as a filmmaker worth paying attention to. He uses the one-location trope of the car interior effectively, and captures the unfolding drama with intimacy. The camera dances around the car, documenting the kidnapping from numerous angles, such as dashboard points of view, back seat perspectives with the glow of tail lights, and the obligatory front seat two-shot. As arduous as such narrative concepts can be, his is a taut and compelling piece of storytelling that relies heavily on the strength of all performances, as well as a strong script with calculated plotting.

Coming Home in the Dark

Erik Thomson (TV’s Packed to the Rafters) and Miriama McDowell (Mahana) play the married couple whose day of blissful abandonment turns into a night of unimaginable horror, while Daniel Gillies (The Originals) and Matthias Laufutu (Ghost in the Shell) assume the kidnapping roles. They make for an impressive ensemble, with Thompson and Gillies being the undeniable standouts. Gillies’ chilling portrayal of the mysterious bad guy (the “badder” of the two) is very well-measured as he deploys menace with a modicum of charm and relentless brutality. Thomson is, in turn, great as the family man whose own past begins to inform the story’s trajectory.

The story is also full of intrigue and what may be predictable to some will be unexpected for others. Whichever the case may be for the individual viewer, the real takeaway from Coming Home in the Dark is the underpinned themes, as aforementioned. Suffice to say that it is a sophisticated thriller that delivers bang-for-buck on all fronts and will please fans of films like Kalifornia, Alone and Breakdown.

In cinemas: September 9
Starring: Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Daniel Gillies
Directed by: James Ashcroft