Disclosure: I have known Ant Timpson for many years, and worked for him for seven of them, ending two years ago.
Producers turning to directing can be unpredictable. On one hand, experienced producers - especially hands-on ones - know movies and their making intimately. On the other hand, the skillsets of producers and directors don’t overlap exactly, with many producers faring better moulding others’ ideas than developing their own. Accordingly, Ant Timpson's feature directorial debut, after decades of producing, festival programming, print-collecting, and general film-industry pie-fingering, comes loaded with expectations - and with fears.
Happily, Come To Daddy gets right down to business. Elijah Wood plays Norval, a self-important LA music-industry dilettante with a history of substance abuse and self-harm, who after receiving a letter of invitation finds himself at the remote beachfront door of his long-absent father. Answering to “Daddy” is the great Stephen McHattie (Watchmen, Pontypool), who seemingly wants nothing to do with Norval - and who provides more questions than answers. They do not, suffice it to say, hit it off well.
To write too much about where the story goes subsequently would be to spoil Come To Daddy’s many delightful surprises. Its story takes unexpected turns, reframing characters’ pasts and motivations while introducing new figures and twists, but the movie goes further even than that. With each new narrative gear-change comes a borderline change in genre, from supernatural horror to crime thriller to grim physical comedy.
Despite all these shakeups, though, Come To Daddy remains a small-scale movie, contained to mostly one location before adding another in the third act. As a result, its success or failure rests largely on the performances. Elijah Wood, decked out in a truly humiliating moustache/haircut combination, is ever the strong “straight man,” bumbling his way through the story with endearing and frustrating haplessness. As “Daddy,” Stephen McHattie harnesses unpredictable humour and rage to become a truly frightening figure. And in smaller roles, Kiwi actress Madeleine Sami and frequent Ben Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley offer quiet empathy and noisy villainy, respectively.
The small scale of the movie also helps maintain craft focus. Timpson’s directing centres attention on the actors, appropriately, though the film is peppered with the odd camera flourish that helps to accentuate or add extra comic beats. Daniel Katz’s cinematography imbues the various genre shifts with a hazy, dreamlike feel, which certainly helps when things start to get weird. Only The Greasy Strangler co-writer Toby Harvard’s script lets the side down a little: it bears much of that film’s wonderful matter-of-fact strangeness, but it lacks consistency in its deployment. Some scenes feel like half-hearted Strangler imitations, while others go for poignancy or thrillery tension. Some of the comedy feels forced, some of the drama is left half-explored, and the movie never quite feels like it hits its groove.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Come To Daddy - in a film replete with them - is how personal it feels. Timpson's output as a producer (The ABCs of Death, The Greasy Strangler, Turbo Kid, Deathgasm, The Devil Dared Me To) has tended toward the silly, bloody, and gross - and there's plenty of all three in Come To Daddy, with graphic violence, non sequiturs, and flaccid penises gracing the screen on a regular basis. But this is a movie about a father-son relationship at its core: a relationship where neither really knows the other, the unfamiliarity yielding surprise after surprise.
Whether Come To Daddy lands with you or not depends largely on your response to the film’s final act. Harvard and Timpson have deliberately avoided a conventional climax here, dropping down to conversation just when it feels ready to bust into a new realm of action or strangeness. It’s clearly a conscious choice, and it fits the film’s themes, but it’s a jarring interruption of otherwise steadily-building momentum. Luckily, the film’s final moments go a long way toward justifying the petering-out, offering up painful catharsis to the personal story underneath.
As a tour of its director’s cinematic tastes, Come To Daddy is as comprehensive as a film of its small scale could be. Its tonal inconsistency, a strength or a weakness depending on how you look at it, is its defining characteristic, and it certainly makes for a fun ride. Given my own fractured paternal relationship, its surprising emotional core has certainly stuck with me. You just get the feeling, though, that it’s not quite as much of itself as it should be: the laughs could hit harder, the action could be snappier, the drama could be treated with a little more weight. Wood’s character is all aloof affectation to begin with; the movie struggles to get past its own. That affect might work for you. It mostly did for me. Mostly.