Debuting director James Ashcroft has racked up a lot of New Zealand credits as an actor – like his co-writer Eli Kent, he’s in Black Sheep – and here gets good work out of his small cast. Adapted from a short story by Owen Marshall, this is an extremely effective suspense-on-the-road movie – like Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs, it’s a car-based version of a home invasion scenario – that’s slightly less comfortable as an issue-based drama which leads back to the kiwi version of the all-too-common institutional child abuse scandal. Schoolteachers Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell) are hiking in the picturesque wilds with their contrasting teenage sons (Billy Paratene, Frankie Paratene) when up walk chatty, rifle-toting Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and taciturn Tubs (Matthia Luafutu) – obvious scoundrels out to rob them and steal their car. Something half-heard triggers Mandrake into casual murderousness, and leads the numbed survivors being cooped up in a car with the two outlaws for a long drive through the night during which a tortured backstory will be drawn out – though there’s still a possibility that Mandrake, a self-styled magician, is just spinning yarns to prolong the agony rather than picking at an actual scab.
It’s a film with some subtle touches – why would a thin man be nicknamed Tubs? – and a few pithy lines (abusing and not preventing abuse aren’t equivalent sins, but ‘they live on the same street’) but works best in the interplay of hostage-taker and hostage on the road, with car games and desperate stratagems that are a black parody of the early awkward family outing scenes. Gillies has a showcase turn as the garrulous, soft-spoken, grudge-nurturing sadist – who unsubtly keeps his own mate on a leash as much as he dominates his victims – the kind of screen fiend who can gun down innocents without a trace of emotion but insists there’s no need for arguments to get heated. The short story plot is effectively drawn out with escape attempts – the victims here aren’t completely useless – and fateful circumstances that keep the carload of characters together as they get nearer a home no one wants to go back to.