Producer: Lucan Toh Director: Babak Anvari Screenplay: Babak Anvari and Namsi Khan Cast: George MacKay, Percelle Ascott, Kelly Macdonald, Varada Sethu, Franc Ashman. Anthony Colf, Yazdan Qafouri, Antonio Aakeel and Hugh Bonneville Distributor: Netflix
The most remarkable thing about Babak Anvari’s thriller, which he co-wrote with Namsi Khan, is how many beats—visual as well as narrative—it borrows (to use the kindest possible word) from Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” They’re twisted and repurposed, of course, but they’re still there.
Unfortunately, though Anvari and Khan may admire “Psycho” and aimed to make something along similarly unsettling lines, they’ve mucked the job up. While Hitchcock’s characters, however flawed, were oddly sympathetic, theirs are almost uniformly not. And while Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano, his co-writer, understood both the value of withholding the big reveal until the end and leading up to it with simplicity of plot, they unmask the villain way too early (this is no “Vertigo”) and clutter up the final act with all sorts of reversals and turns that simply muddle things. Might one add that while Norman Bates’s motives might have been perverse, they were still credible within the confines of the genre; those of Anvari’s bad-guy Hector Blake (Hugh Bonneville), which he eventually explains in a torturous monologue, are convoluted and faintly absurd.
Bonneville, though far down in the cast list, is really the star of “I Came By.” His character is an important member of the British upper class, an ex-judge noted for his high principle, his friendship with members of the establishment (like a police superintendent) and—as his London mansion indicates—substantial wealth.
At first, however, he seems a peripheral character; the focus instead is on Toby Nealy (George MacKay), a surly young man who sees himself as a revolutionary. Sloughing off the concerns of his frustrated mother Lizzie (Kelly Macdonald), a therapist who counsels troubled youngsters like Faisal (Antonio Aakeel), whose parents insists that he become a doctor, Toby goes out regularly with his pal Jay (Percelle Ascott) to break into plush homes and leave their signature graffiti “I Came By” drawn on a wall. They case the places during their landscaping job.
One of the homes is Blake’s, and Toby, researching the man’s past, decides that his liberal pose is a fraud. But Jay’s girlfriend Naz (Varada Sethu) has just told him that she’s pregnant, and he’s not willing to put himself in jeopardy by engaging in any further housebreaking. Toby therefore decides to go it alone, and when he investigates the basement of Blake’s house, detects movement behind a hidden metal door there. But Blake’s sudden return sends him running.
The discovery unnerves him, but his anonymous attempt to get the police involved gets nowhere, and he decides to act on his own. His second intrusion does not go well, and leaves Lizzie and Jay puzzled and fearful about his whereabouts. Lizzie, again finding the police, in the person of Detective Sergeant Lloyd (Franc Ashman), unhelpful, undertakes her own desperate search for her son, an effort that comes to involve a young Iranian asylum seeker (Yazdan Qafouri) who serves as a masseuse at Blake’s club. Jay, once again, hesitates to get involved, but eventually relents. To say more would constitute spoilers.
“I Came By” is handsomely made—Ben Smith’s production design expertly covers both Blake’s elegant upstairs and his grubby basement (as well as Jay and Naz’s lower-class flat), and Kit Fraser’s cinematography is mostly fine, apart from some murkily dark moments. But Mátyás Fekete’s editing doesn’t always keep things ideally clear (at one point toward the close, much is made of delivering a copy of Naz’s thesis about immigration to Blake, but nothing seems to come of it), and Isabel Weller-Bridge’s score doesn’t add a great deal.
The acting, though, is strong. Bonneville’s hardly an unforgettable villain (he’s no Norman Bates, and when push comes to shove, he makes a pretty clumsy evildoer), but he plays effectively against type, and MacKay makes Toby annoyingly self-righteous and intense up to his ineffectual attempt to play the hero. Macdonald, surprisingly, tends to overdo; Ascott’s restrained performance is more effective.
In the end, serious third act problems scuttle “I Came By.” The desire to emulate Hitchcock is understandable, but like most who have tried, Anvari comes up short.