“Come to Daddy” begins by quoting Shakespeare and Beyoncé in the same frame, and it only gets loopier from there. But no matter its oddball turns, Kiwi director Ant Timpson’s wild, unpredictable debut manages to deliver a gory hilarious father-son reunion saga with a surprising degree of confidence in the silly-strange nature of the material — a sentimental story about death and rediscovery that explodes into violent mayhem even as it maintains an earnest connection to the conundrum at hand. It’s an absurd gross-out romp that turns into a tearjerker.
Timpson, whose producing credits include the grotesque midnight whatsit “The Greasy Strangler,” certainly has a handle on his lurid material, but star Elijah Wood helps give it heart. As a baffled pariah named Norval, the actor delivers one of his most endearing characters in recent memory: a wide-eyed, mustachioed hipster who obscures his insecurities with high fashion and fancy lies. When Norval shows up at his estranged father’s remote seaside mansion as the movie begins, he wanders through a vast, empty green landscape as the wind sweeps through, and his top hat careens off-screen. He freezes into a silhouette of confusion, and it’s the first indication of strange circumstances beyond his control.
Timpson’s ominous visual flair sets the stage for an elegant thriller, and the first act of “Come to Daddy” unfolds as a dark comic thriller. When Norval arrives at the mansion, he introduces himself to the stern man with cruel eyes (Stephen McHattie) who opens the door as his long-lost son. The older man looks puzzled, curious, and not exactly thrilled by Norval’s arrival, even though Norval says he received a letter from his old man asking him to visit. Not having seen his dad since his toddler years, Norval — whose mother raised him under posh circumstances in Beverly Hills — seems to eager to develop an adult relationship.
But McHattie’s bawdy, inebriated character quickly makes it clear that a tender reunion is not in the cards: As the pair settle into the living room, he intimidates Norval by poking holes in his claims of being a successful deejay back home, and later threatens violence against the poor guy in a drunken rage. Norval, whose troubled family history has led to his own history of substance abuse, can barely process this reality check before circumstances take an even more dire turn, and he’s suddenly left alone in the sprawling abode to contemplate his emotional turmoil against the dramatic ocean backdrop.
But…not for long. It would ruin the ride to reveal too much about the complications that suddenly put Norval in danger and lead to new revelations about his past, but Timpson manages to pad out the running time with a menacing slow-build. After he hears strange sounds at night, Norval begins to suspect he’s being haunted by his personal demons, but the reality is at once more shocking and ludicrous. As it shifts gears into a fast-paced tale of dumb criminals and ruthless scheming, “Come to Daddy” loses some of the awe-inspiring intrigue of its first half. But when Norval suddenly faces a range of cartoonish threats, from knives to fecal-encrusted pens, the movie settles into a different kind of escapism.
With shades of early Peter Jackson and “Evil Dead II,” the mayhem builds to a relentless pileup of chaotic circumstances, most of which unfold within the claustrophobic confines of a single interior set. It’s there that two-bit criminals played by Michael Smiley and the great Martin Donovan become central to Norval’s survival, as he contends with the risking stakes of a situation he never signed up for. But in a strange way, the gruesome events become an ideal metaphor for the often messy process of confronting family bonds that burst apart long ago.
Once the full scope of that drama has been revealed, “Come to Daddy” struggles to maintain its zany energy through the final act, and a concluding hotel room showdown unfolds like a quirky, half-hearted sketch comedy in the shadow of the more alluring weirdness leading up to it. Even so, it’s punctuated by a violent act so cartoonish and bizarre it brings the story back to its strengths. Meanwhile, Wood’s frozen look of astonishment at every new twist epitomizes the outrageous, winding pathway of the movie’s plot.
As Norval stumbles into a climactic encounter, “Come to Daddy” arrives at the attempted reconciliation the character has pursued from the start, while it doesn’t happen the way he’d envisioned it, the movie finds its way to a bizarre form of closure that illustrate Timpson’s confidence in this strange genre brew. By the end, it all suddenly clicks: The finale conjures a series of poignant images to convey the idea that cruel people still have the potential for empathy, and family bonds can transcend even the bloodiest of circumstances.
“Come to Daddy” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.