Ant Timpson’s Come to Daddy has a twist built into its first 40 minutes that’s so integral to the plot, calling it a “twist” feels like a trap, such that using it to describe what happens in Come to Daddy’s second act feels like a big old honking spoiler. But it isn’t a spoiler, it’s just plot development. Suffice it to say that when Norval (Elijah Wood), an effete mama’s boy and hyper-successful DJ, hikes out to a secluded and stylish bachelor cabin on a lake in Oregon to meet his dad, Brian (Stephen McHattie), for the first time in actual ages, their reunion is an instant disappointment. Their banter is awkward, for one thing, though maybe given the passage of time, this is unsurprising. For another, Brian is a lousy drunk and macho asshole who tests Norval’s brags about his life in the recording industry.
Grant that Norval lies about knowing Elton John, but also Brian’s a huge dick about the whole thing, and this is before he attacks Norval with a meat cleaver. “Come to daddy!” he slurs, swinging and slashing at his son before croaking thanks to a convenient heart attack. So long, dad; we barely knew ye. But not so fast: The coroners leave the body at the cabin, because they’re currently overstocked on corpses. Then Norval starts hearing loud clanging deep within the belly of the house. Then he finds a family photo album, hidden behind wood panelling, and “Brian” isn’t in any of the photos. Someone else is. Time to go check out that clanging noise.
Figuring out Come to Daddy is a wonderfully fruitless task. Movies like André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe immediately spring to mind as antecedents, being the story of people stuck in a space with a dead body as weird shit transpires about them. The Autopsy of Jane Doe this is not. It’s, well, it’s something else, and most of all it’s inspired. Ant Timpson zigs instead of zagging and swerves right instead of left while neither telegraphing his choices nor making choices that read as inorganic. He has an astounding affinity for the unexpected: Even when the full breadth of Come to Daddy is revealed, Timpson has more yet to show viewers, from cartoonish levels of ultra-violence, to random sex parties, to the final truth about Norval’s upbringing, and all the while the film manages to be both blackly hilarious and deeply moving.
Timpson might be good at forging trails off the beaten genre path, but he’s great at articulating theme. Come to Daddy goes from eerie to creepy to scary, then to thrilling, then to heartbreaking. Up front it’s a movie about paternal reconciliation gone wrong, but the more Norval’s attempts at reconnecting with dear old dad go wrong, the more the story stays on track. Beneath the blood and bleak comedy, this is the story of inherited male privilege colliding with abandonment anxiety. Norval’s a bit of a wanker, but the pain he carries with him—the pain inflicted by fatherhood in absentia—is so real, and given so much immediacy through Wood’s wounded yearling performance, that it’s impossible not to feel for him, especially as matters go from bad to worse to “what in the actual fuck.”
Don’t mistake Come to Daddy as anything less than unbridled, of course, but for such a staunchly bonkers movie, composure rules Timpson’s aesthetic. He maintains an impressive control over a narrative that, at face value, appears to be constantly spiraling out of control, but that’s part of his design. Throughout, his filmmaking remains precise, and his cast remains in the same key of crazy, notably Michael Smiley as Jethro, a leering, crossbow-slinging lunatic. Smiley draws on his background as a comedian and his comfort with grim genre exercises to bridge the gap between escalating insanity and gallows humor. Regardless, it’s the primal fears Come to Daddy confronts—the fear of a life lived in the shadow of male apathy, the fear of being unwanted—that ultimately hold the film steadiest.
Director: Ant Timpson
Writer: Toby Harvard
Starring: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan, Michael Smiley, Madeleine Sami
Release Date: March 24, 2020 (Blu-ray and digital)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.