Thrillers can be difficult to write without spoilers. Imagine having to offer something insightful about Gone Girl with the second half of the film essentially inaccessible, but I Came By particularly seems like that. Not because the story is particularly twisty, but because the surprises it holds are so crucial to its overall effect. It benefits from writer-director Babak Anvari’s sense of the author’s hand making some strong and thoughtful decisions on both narrative and style that aren’t exactly genre-specific, which end up providing more food for thought. Viewers with the background to properly admire them will likely get the most out of the viewing. Those who engage with it on the whole level, however, may find it less than the sum of its parts: compelling enough to leave them positive about the experience, but not quite sold on the validity of this formal experiment.
The title of I Came By refers to two young graffiti activists, Toby (George MacKay) and Jay (Percelle Ascott), who caused a sensation by breaking into upper-class homes and painting that phrase on the walls. Coming out of their latest successful job, Jay discovers that his girlfriend Naz (Varada Sethu) is pregnant and making a political statement no longer seems worth the risk of ending up in jail. This leaves Toby managing their next target, Sir Henry Blake (Hugh Bonneville), alone. The esteemed former judge is perfectly commendable on paper, but the cynical Toby is convinced that the old money aristocrat is only good at looking after him, and decides to hit the house anyway. But when he uncovers a dark secret hiding in Blake’s basement, he inadvertently puts himself and his loved ones in grave danger.
Percelle Ascott and George MacKay in I came by
While this review won’t go into what happens next, it’s safe to say that Toby was right to be suspicious, but the challenges of facing someone like Sir Blake are obvious. He is connected in ways that put him above suspicion. He leaves for a game of squash with a police supervisor on the night of Toby’s raid, while the 23-year-old anarchist tagger can barely get into his social circle. Indeed, the network of characters who might oppose the Bonneville villain is fractured. Jay must fend off Toby for the sake of his new family; Toby and his psychologist mother, Lizzie (Kelly Macdonald), fight constantly; Naz confronts her family’s troubles to be with Jay, who then risks eroding their relationship by keeping his past deeds secret. No one but the viewer holds all the information at all times, and much of the tension comes from the heroes’ attempts to act without all the necessary information. And I Came By isn’t afraid to give those actions frighteningly serious consequences.
Outside of the story, Blake and the nature of his secret signal that the film is about the special form of sinister influence that can only come from someone with his background and status. The casting of the Downton Abbey star is designed to keep a certain idea of the Brits at the front of viewers’ minds, so that Anvari can use it for social commentary. It makes I Came By, somewhat oddly, an evil twin from Paddington from 2014. The viewer learns about Blake’s childhood as the film progresses, but while other thrillers may use it to explain him and his actions, this departs from the story he tells himself. Parenting is a motive in I Came By, and the potential ramifications of an unhealthy parent-child relationship, in particular, emerge in virtually every character’s storyline. But the way this manifests itself in Blake, and how she shaped the object of his anger, is unique to him: it is the product of her whiteness, of her wealth, of his inherited sense of right. As much as it invests in characters as individuals, the film never lets its viewers forget that the real evil is the system, of which Blake is just a twisted manifestation.
Kelly Macdonald in I Came From
However, while there are scenes where his message comes genuinely, it doesn’t come with the impact hopefully. Here too there is a significant textual parallelism. At first it is debated whether Toby and Jay’s graffiti-based activism really makes the difference he means. How much value is there, really, in the act of “passing”? That the film seems to indicate the potential emptiness of its own political gesture is perhaps intriguing, but it sets that problem aside rather than solving it. The story itself faces a similar problem, as it is so clearly composed with more care than the common thriller, but it doesn’t actually turn out to be much more thrilling. There’s a real risk that audiences less familiar with the genre will dismiss I Came By as Netflix’s standard fare, but even those who pick up on its clever touches will wonder why they haven’t been more.
I Came By began streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, August 31st. The film lasts 110 minutes and is rated TV-MA.