By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie and Martin Donovan
Directed by Ant Timpson
Written by Toby Harvard
COME TO DADDY is outrageous, gleefully nasty, consistently clever and a hell of a lot of fun. And none of those qualities are fully evident in the part of the movie that can be discussed without giving too much away, so bear with me here.
World-premiering at the current Tribeca Film Festival, COME TO DADDY is the directorial debut of New Zealand-based genre producer Ant Timpson, reuniting with THE GREASY STRANGLER co-scripter Toby Harvard. The Timpson production this one most strongly recalls, however, is Gerard Johnstone’s still severely underappreciated HOUSEBOUND, in the way it weds whiplash surprises to a core of humanity that keeps you engaged with its people even as they’re visiting serious physical harm on each other. For the first act, the abuse is all emotional as Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood in a truly weird haircut) journeys to the remote lakeside house of his father Gordon (Stephen McHattie), who abandoned him and his mother when Norval was 5 years old.
Although he has grown up a child of privilege in Beverly Hills, Norval clearly has issues: He’s still living at home with his mom and has spent part of his life battling the bottle. That condition appears to be hereditary, as Gordon, prone to belittling his son from early in their reunion (he ruthlessly undercuts Norval’s desperate attempts to impress him), becomes a verbally vicious sonuvabitch when he gets soused. Wood, who makes Norval sympathetic as he attempts to break through to his dad even though he’s kind of a wimp, and McHattie, turning one-upmanship and spoken cruelty into an art form, play off each other perfectly. You watch their exchanges with a mix of glee and unease, knowing that something’s got to give at some point. Pretty soon, Norval doesn’t know how much more of this he can take—and if that isn’t enough to compel him to consider cutting the visit short, strange banging sounds begin to emanate from within the walls…
That’s all of the plot that should be discussed in detail; the only general note to add is that Norval soon learns the hard way that his pop has some even more unsavory friends, including one played with indelible grunginess by Michael Smiley (KILL LIST). Instead, attention must be paid to Timpson’s skill at maintaining the tricky balancing of gore and perverse behavior with character-based humor, belying his first-timer status at the helm. COME TO DADDY startles you with its plot turns, and makes you gasp and cringe with its ghastly details (you’ll never look at a certain writing implement the same way again), yet Timpson knows how to pitch even the nastiest moments so that film doesn’t tip over into gratuitous gross-out territory. He and Harvard also get the humor just right, exaggerating the characters’ actions and dialogue just to the point where they become funny, yet stopping short of caricature.
The cast (also including Martin Donovan, Simon Chin and Ona Grauer) all attack their roles with gusto and complete commitment to playing in the movie’s bloody sandbox, with Wood providing the crucial focal point of (comparative) normality. Even as it’s reveling in its genre elements, COME TO DADDY touches on themes of family ties and dysfunction that gives a measure of meaning to the mayhem, and it has all been impeccably crafted. Daniel Katz’s moody cinematography catches moments of beauty throughout, taking full advantage of the picturesque location and Gordon’s eye-catching abode (accurately described as looking like a spaceship), and Karl Steven’s score is perfectly attuned to the movie’s alternating tones of dread and jet-black amusement. Tibor Farkas created the expertly visceral makeup effects, for that point in COME TO DADDY where the characters stop wounding each other with words and begin doing so literally.