Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow” is both one of the best and one of the most under-appreciated horror movies of all time. He managed to tell the story of a mother and a daughter going through a tumultuous time in their personal lives while tackling the horrors of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. He aptly portrayed what a woman must go through while balancing her child’s upbringing and holding onto her professional dreams, while a man is able to choose between one or the other. He also commented on how religious bigotry persists even when a country is on the brink of crumbling. On top of that, he delivered in spades in terms of the scares. He followed that up with “Wounds,” where he tried to generate fear out of the weirdest corners of the internet. And now he’s here with “I Came By.”
Co-written with Namsi Khan, the Babak Anvari directorial tells the story of a duo of graffiti artists, Toby (George MacKay) and Jay (Percelle Ascott). They go around breaking into houses of ultra-rich people and writing the titular message on their walls, as if to say that being rich doesn’t make one invincible. Toby lives with his mother, Lizzie (Kelly Macdonald), and they share a tense relationship because Toby is an emo, pseudo-rebellious and misogynistic manboy who thinks he’s Batman. This trait of his obviously clashes with Jay’s life goals as well when Jay reveals that he’s about to have a baby with his long-term girlfriend, Naz (Varada Sethu). So, they momentarily part ways, and Toby goes on the next graffiti job on his own, which involves him breaking into ex-judge Sir Hector Blake’s (Hugh Bonneville) house. And after getting in there, he finds out that Blake is harboring some dark secrets behind a big red door.
To put it simply, “I Came By” is kind of a cross between “Summer of 84” and “Don’t Breathe.” As in, a model citizen who walks among the innocent is actually a serial killer. Although he appears to be a weak, old man, he’s actually quite adept at holding his own against able-bodied people. Now, Khan and Anvari try to add some more layers to this premise, instead of making it a straight-up slasher by a) showing the influence of internet revolutionaries on the unemployed youth, b) the hierarchy in social circles and the racism that exists in its top tiers, and c) poetic justice, I guess. The first two are relevant because they show that the progression of humanity and the betterment of technology are ultimately widening the wealth gap, essentially allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. And that performative acts of “justice” eventually amount to nothing.
While that sounds good on paper, the overall execution is so anti-climatic that it makes the viewing experience boring. That’s not me throwing shade on the concept of anti-climatic twists. If done well, they can be extremely impactful. For example, “Summer of 84” mentioned before takes a pretty cliched route to reveal who’s the killer. But instead of giving the heroes a win, it leaves them with a seemingly unending feeling of loss and dread. Anvari clearly tries to achieve a similar effect not once but twice. However, the surface-level depiction of incel-culture and the blandness of Sir Blake don’t achieve that sense of satisfaction that should come from the lack of catharsis. Additionally, the one moment of justice is so by-the-numbers that the repeated attempts at being somewhat subversive seem unnecessary. It’s the equivalent of spending over 6 hours in the kitchen and emerging out of it with a box of cereal and a glass of milk.
From a technical point of view, the Netflix film “I Came By” is quite decent. Everything from Kit Fraser’s cinematography to Matyas Fekete’s editing and Ben Smith’s production design is competent. Out of all that, Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score stands out the most, as it brings a sense of oppressive tension to the film. The acting from the entire cast is excellent. George MacKay has repeatedly proven that he has the ability to lose himself in any character. He performs calisthenics as easily as he portrays the immaturity of Toby. It’s always been a treat to watch Kelly Macdonald perform, ever since her “Trainspotting” days. She does a brilliant job of expressing Lizzie’s anxiety and determination to keep Toby on the right path. Percelle Ascott and Varada Sethu, as the tragic couple, are really effective. The movie definitely needed more of them. Hugh Bonneville’s villainous turn is equal parts cold and campy. Yazdan Qafouri and Franc Ashman are good, but they needed more screen time.
In conclusion, “I Came By” is proof that Babak Anvari has yet to discover his footing as a storyteller in the horror, mystery, and thriller-related space. He clearly has good ideas. He wants to talk about how White men with colonialist backgrounds still want to own and hurt the bodies of people who don’t look like them. He wants to talk about homophobia. He wants to talk about how the rising unemployment in the UK, coupled with the increase in YouTube influencers, is promoting vigilante justice, which is doing more harm than good. And he wants to talk about how immigrants always have to suffer for the sins of their White counterparts. But when it comes to the execution, he is clearly failing. So, as a fan of “Under the Shadow,” I hope he finds an apt way to deliver his ideas soon.