I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
AUSTIN — We’ve seen our fair share of wholesome fathers in classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lion King, but some of the most memorable turns come from the movie dads who are deeply flawed. Cinema has taken all kinds of obscure approaches to understanding the complicated bond between fathers and sons, whether it’s all work and no play or letting a young Jedi know who his daddy is. These fatherly portrayals can be simple, recognizably human individuals who have their selfish desires, sometimes inadvertently affecting the next generation with their actions. And, more often than not, they stem from a filmmaker’s personal experience as a path to heal, discover and connect.
Saban Films’ dark comedy Come to Daddy is very much a personal film for new director Ant Timpson, who has produced such offbeat tales as The ABCs of Death and The Greasy Strangler. Based on the emotions experienced during Timpson’s father’s death, the story sees a twitchy young man, uniquely named Norval (Elijah Wood), traveling to the remote Oregon home of his absentee father (Stephen McHattie). It seems that Norval’s dad wants to reconnect with him. Only he has an aggressive and dangerously Manson-like way of showing it. And things get weird — really weird.
Come to Daddy is about as savagely deranged as they come. That becomes apparent within the first few minutes when Wood’s Norval is dressed like an all-grown-up character from Children of the Corn who stumbled through an Urban Outfitters and Kanye’s closet. The friar boy haircut and creepy mustache complete the getup as we embark on an eerie trek of paternal discovery. (Timpson opens his directorial debut with oddly paired quotes from William Shakespeare and Beyoncé, like an Adam McKay comedy.)
Timpson’s feature travels down one lane but quickly shifts to another as the situation escalates to an unfathomable degree. It’s easy to become comfortable with the nature-filled scenery. The crashing waves on the shore and the “1960s wooden, UFO-like cabin” inhabit a setting that’s fit for romantic drama like Message in a Bottle. But then McHattie’s character throws a thick blanket of fog over it to shape the film into something cut from the horror cloth.
Although Timpson planted the creative seed for Come to Daddy, it was Greasy Strangler screenwriter Toby Harvard who watered it. Timpson said Harvard challenged his opinions, but improved the story.
“There was a framework for the ideas that I wanted to do. At that stage, it was going to be a borderline supernatural, very dark, small and intimate film,” Timpson said after the regional premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin last year. “Then, I was grief-stricken and wanted the film to be more rotten. When [Harvard] turned in a rough draft maybe two weeks later, I couldn’t get my head around it being so funny and different. I had to stop myself from making a stupid decision by dismissing this new take. Right then, I knew if I tried to make a personal film about grief, it was going to be pretentious twaddle.”
Timpson understood that it would make for more compelling work to house those personal sentiments within the genre framework. He feels comfortable shaping his stories inside that eccentric sandbox because that’s where Timpson’s roots sprouted. It may have taken some self-convincing, but Timpson quickly let his intentions to fly the coop.
“I think I pissed Toby off by being blunt. The more time I spent with the script, however, the more I loved it. Although, admittedly, my dad probably would have hated it. Come to Daddy is not him. It’s a horrible cinematic tribute to him,” Timpson joked. “He favored British thrillers, and this film goes to some absurd levels. We needed to dial it back just a little to make things resonate and feel real.”
Part of the reason why these extreme circumstances are grounded is because of the actors’ commitment. There are lines — ones that I cannot share — that so easily could have danced away into cartoonish territory. But McHattie and Wood hold the fort, balancing the wacky aspects with genuine comedy.
“You want actors who can relish the opportunity and understand the nature of how to punch those things through. People are either shocked by [these moments of absurdity] or find it so outrageous that they laugh,” Timpson said. “They are not natural things for anyone to say during those times, but we’re playing with a heightened form of realism.”
One of the most notable scenes is when Norval is trying to impress his dad over a fireside chat. He talks about being reasonably popular in the music business as a DJ who produces “blazing beats” and “tickles the ivories.” Norval tops it off by saying Elton John discovered him and even became a father figure. Norval’s dad challenges the information by saying he was, coincidentally, Elton John’s limo driver for 10 years. He suggests that they should call Elton John to share the bizarre connection. Norval nervously tries to dilute the excitement, but it’s soon established Norval wasn’t speaking the truth, and neither was his dad.
Timpson collaborated with Wood to flesh out Norval. Wood immediately understood how to portray the part, having previously worked in the wheelhouse, with titles like the television series Wilfred and the horror-comedy Cooties under his belt.
“Even though Elijah’s character comes off as LA puffery, beneath all that is a real human connection of a kid trying to impress his dad. That scene about Elton John delivers this douchey quality, but it works on another level, too, because Norval is trying to connect with dad. Elijah brings a whole history of likable characters. But I wanted there to be some distance to him by Elijah playing a [halfwit]. As a gifted and intuitive performer, Elijah carries that across,” Timpson said.
Come to Daddy is a bit of a slow burn. It gradually builds up to an explosive conclusion that goes off the deep end. The blood flows and limbs are broken, but the violence doesn’t crisp the nerves as much as you are likely priming yourself for. Similar to the films by Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair (Green Room and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), each moment of violence unfolds as natural and messy as it would in real life.
“I am completely bored of gun culture and the epitomization of the armament,” Timpson said. “I wanted the violence to be awkward, distinctive, clumsy, strange and even poetic at times. It was all stuff that I wanted to see. When bones were being broken, it’s off-screen because I didn’t want to be bogged down with prosthetics. If you can make it work through just performance, then why not go for it?”
Timpson used comical situations and jokes to keep the absurdity from falling over the edge. A prime example is a fight that happens around the hour mark. Norval goes through a significant transformation, and Timpson wanted the tone to go up and down throughout the entire sequence.
“Everything should be read from within the headspace of Elijah’s character. That way, when the big switch comes, it has an impact,” Timpson said.
Opening in select theaters and hitting digital platforms on Friday, Come to Daddy is a wild movie. But if you can ride its eccentric wave (like I did), you’ll laugh and enjoy yourself.