They say you can’t go home again, but while that typically refers to the place where you grew up it also applies to the people you’ve left behind. For Norval (Elijah Wood), that person is his father Brian (Stephen McHattie), and if we’re being technical about it, Norval’s father left him. He said goodbye to his toddler son three decades prior when he abandoned the boy’s mother, but after receiving a letter from his estranged dad the now thirty-something year-old Norval has come for a reunion he hopes will lead to acceptance and approval. He’s not sure what to expect, but the short-tempered and dickish Brian is far from the ideal. The visit to his dad’s remote, stilted-house on the chilly coast of the Pacific Northwest only goes downhill from there as dark secrets, surprising truths, and grisly violence erupts around them.
Come to Daddy delivers some fun, surprising turns against a backdrop of cruelty, mean-spirited maliciousness, and uncomfortable laughs. Ant Timpson is making his feature directorial debut here, but he’s been a relevant voice as a genre producer for years now helping shepherd absolute gems like Housebound (2014), Turbo Kid (2015), and Deathgasm (2015) into existence. He’s scaled back for his first effort from the director’s chair with its single location and minimal cast, but his clear love for stories that blend terror, absurdity, and pitch black comedy remains in full effect. The elements work well together even if no single aspect reaches the level of brilliance — meaning that while it’s funny it’s not laugh out loud, it’s thrilling but not edge of your seat — and the end result is a highly entertaining look at one man’s journey out of dysfunction.
The script by Toby Harvard shows familiar threads to the father/son dynamic in The Greasy Strangler (which he co-wrote), but while this film teases the ridiculous at times it never moves completely towards that movie’s depth of pure insanity. Instead, each new reveal here — there are many, and most manage to surprise and thrill — turns the crazy up an additional notch, but the film and characters remain grounded in the real world. That adherence to reality works to up the suspense which in turn aids the dramatic core of this otherwise comedic romp.
Norval is in bad shape. An alcoholic struggling with recovery, he’s a man obsessed with status — real or perceived. He tries and fails to impress his dad with career accomplishments that range from the vague to the far too specific, and it’s quickly made clear that he is absolutely desperate for this man’s approval. Brian is in no hurry to give it, though, and while it’s frequently played for laughs it’s clear that his dismissal of Norval is killing the young man. It’s all about perspective, of course, as a short time later someone is quite literally trying to kill him, and it’s through these two dramatic conflicts that Norval finds his own belated coming of age tale.
Wood is an absolute gift as Norval. The character is one who, on the page at least, reads as wholly unlikable. Image and self-pity are his two main modes, but Wood quickly finds the humanity and heart beneath the attention-seeking wardrobe and haircut. We want to hate Norval on sight, but we’re empathetic to his pain and immediately take his side when his father unloads each new barrage against his fragile ego and psyche. His desire for connection and love is one we’ve all felt, and as it becomes ever clearer that Norval’s shit out of luck on that count we’re left rooting for this poorly dressed man-child as he moves well beyond his comfort zone. McHattie, meanwhile, is equally fantastic moving in the opposite direction — you want to like him, but he quickly proves himself to be too damn mean. Hilariously so at times, but still…
The isolated setting works beautifully for the narrative while also being just plain beautiful. The house sits on stilts with a lush forest on one side and the cold waters of the ocean on the other, and Daniel Katz‘s cinematography ensures the rocky shore portends the troubles heading Norval’s way. It’s the kind of place where nothing should go wrong, but of course, everything does. Karl Steven‘s score accentuates the mix of tones and enhances both the calm and the storm.
Timpson’s debut is a genre-bender mashing dark thrills and even darker laughs, and while the ending is maybe a little too abrupt Come to Daddy succeeds in delivering an unexpected and off-kilter ride.
Come to Daddy had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2019.