Director: Babak Anvari
Stars: Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Bonneville, George MacKay
Two features into his career and Babak Anvari has already evidenced a high with Under the Shadow and – one hopes – a low in Wounds. Indeed the disparity between these two offerings puts undue pressure on his latest, I Came By, to prove his unflattering last was just a blip. This new Netflix Original, then, is a chance to course correct.
I Came By announces itself with a buoyant cold open that suggests Anvari has swerved away from horror for this one. In the buzzing metropolis of London, 21st century Robin Hood figure Toby (George MacKay) targets the bourgeoisie with his graffiti tag that gives the film it’s name, performing a nifty bit of sleight-of-hand at a train station which encourages our investment in this cheeky character. After a slew of uptight or earnest period roles, it’s quite refreshing to see MacKay – a versatile player – flex in the contemporary vernacular, representing a more relatable class.
Setting his sights on vandalising the property of retired judge Sir Hector Blake (Hugh Boneville), Toby is crestfallen that his partner-in-crime Jay (Percell Ascott) is hanging up his hoodie in favour of domesticity. While his mother (Kelly Macdonald) worries at home and searches for the remote, Toby is undeterred and ventures to the judge’s house solo.
Around the peripheries Anvari dials in evergreen discontent over class disparity in the UK, particularly via the anti-establishment vlogs that Toby subscribes to, but I Came By reveals itself as an energised take on the home invasion movie. Anvari may not have strayed as far from his horror roots as the picture initially suggests.
While the shooting style here conspicuously lacks the elegance of Under the Shadow (to put it mildly), Anvari’s concerns are evidently elsewhere. There are notes of Don’t Breathe about I Came By especially once Toby makes an unexpected discovery in Blake’s basement and starts planning a return visit. MacKay isn’t the only one playing refreshingly against type. Bonneville has made a name for himself with affable roles (Downton Abbey, the Paddington movies), forging for himself a cosy persona akin to Jim Broadbent’s. I Came By goes some way to destabilising that. Anvari gets a lot of mileage out of subverting expectations. Bonneville is readily believable as a threatening presence. His initial weapon of choice – a cricket bat – also feels loaded with class associations that only accentuate the tensions at the core of this piece.
Multi-generational provocations recur, not just in the fraught relationship between Toby and his mother. Jay’s impending fatherhood is a note of strain at the edges of the story. More pointedly, a dark confessional from Blake mid-picture comes to us unexpectedly and reinforces a developing theme of loaded parental legacies and the challenge of living up to expectations. Played so seriously, the scene teeters on the verge of knowing camp, with dialogue that slams into that subtext hard.
Some healthy dramatic license is taken (how many UK suburban homes have basements, let alone spacious ones?) and Anvari pulls some narrative swerves that are played as more surprising than they are (Psycho is another big influence here), but the sense of propulsion remains and keeps us on track with the movie’s tempo. At least, for a while…
There’s a sense of Hollyoakes soap drama around the peripheries of I Came By that one might argue detracts from a leaner focus – especially when the second act slows to a veritable crawl – but it also adds a uniquely British flavour to a style of movie more commonly associated with the Hollywood studio machine.
Fortunately the genre machinations reaffirm themselves for a finale that ultimately shapes this ride as a surprisingly bleak interpretation of the power dynamics in post-Brexit Britain. Though the final scene intends a more buoyant note to match – literally – that of it’s opening, the whole feels much more compromised and uncertain. If I Came By is to be taken as a reflection of the world that modern Britain has made for itself, it suggests a landscape powered by hypocrisy, injustice and a sense of futility in the face of the guiltless; something that the likes of Toby and Jay – with their own brand of grassroots vigilantism – struggle hard to effectively dent.
As for Anvari, while he’s operating some distance from the heights of Under the Shadow, there’s enough vigor and spite here to reignite the fires of promise dulled by his last feature. Certainly more optimism than can be found in the text of I Came By.