Hugh Bonneville gives a chilling performance in I Came By, Netflix’s home invasion thriller that is tense and grisly but stumbles when the plot twists pile up.
The latest film from Netflix, I Came By is a home invasion crime thriller with a fair amount of pedigree. It has a good British cast, a good director (Babak Anvari, the British-Iranian filmmaker behind Under the Shadow and Wounds) and a plot that features an interrogation of elitism and a lot of twists. Yet its release has flown under the radar. It reminded me a lot of how Netflix handled Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Bigbug, which was very interesting but ultimately buried by the streamer because of how ‘out-there’ it was. Is I Came By just as interesting? Yes – at least for most of its runtime.
In London, Toby (George MacKay) and Jay (Percelle Ascott) are graffiti writers who target the wealthy elite. Together, they hack into their security systems, break into their penthouse apartments and scribble a message onto their walls: ‘I Came By.’ It acts as a warning, designed to make their victims uncomfortable and inspire everyone else to fight this unbalanced system of wealth. Their next target is Hector Blake (Hugh Bonneville), a respected judge who has recently resigned after 30 years. Noted for helping refugees and asylum seekers, he has been given the nickname ‘Saint Blake.’ But Toby is convinced something sinister is lurking beneath the surface – linked to the long line of colonisers in Blake’s family history.
However, at the same time, Jay wants out. His girlfriend Naz (Varada Sethu) is pregnant, and he truly wants to be a father. After all, Jay has been to prison before, and he doesn’t want to put Naz or his child in any jeopardy. So an annoyed Toby decides to do the mission alone, breaking into Blake’s home one night. And then, he hears some rattling noises from the basement. What is Blake hiding down there? Whatever it is, it shocks Toby to the core, and he ends up seeking a way to bring down Blake once and for all.
Saying anything more about I Came By, including the secret of what is in the basement, would spoil too much. However, the film does start brilliantly, taking time to establish its themes of class and elitism, its character dramas and the shocking mystery that propels the film. The performances are a big plus point too. For instance, George MacKay is very good, carrying the searing intensity that makes him an incredibly watchable actor. Toby is a complex, prickly character. His cause is noble (he is fighting against the elite and the system propping up that group of people), yet he treats everyone around him almost pig-headedly. He appears to be in a state of arrested development, bouncing between jobs and focusing solely on graffitiing that doesn’t seem to have a purpose outside its basic ‘Fight the Power’ message. It is a sharp contrast to Jay and his shifting priorities.
Meanwhile, Hugh Bonneville’s performance as Blake is startling. The British actor is known for his kind, comforting roles in Downton Abbey or the Paddington series. This is a completely different kind of performance. Bonneville’s Blake uses charm as a disguise, his chuckles covering several layers of sinister intent. Toby is right – there is more to Blake than his charitable acts. And his evil does stem from his past, from the father whose portrait looms over his living room. But the chilling thing isn’t why he commits the acts we see. Instead, it is how Blake gets away with everything in broad daylight. His relationships with police commissioners and powerful figures (we see pictures of him with Richard Branson and Tony Blair) that allow him to slip undetected.
Babak Anvari is good at creating terror out of unassuming situations, and the first 40 minutes or so of I Came By sees an effective building of tension. Afterwards, though, things start going a little bit downhill. Coincidentally, the problems begin with the first of the film’s many jolting plot twists. Admittedly, this first twist is an exciting and daring choice. And it does lead to something interesting, with the narrative shifting its focus onto other characters – especially Toby’s therapist mother Lizzie (a superb Kelly Macdonald). Ultimately, Anvari and co-scriptwriter Namsi Khan take a few too many turns with their narrative. As a result, not only does the end feel unsatisfying and unfulfilling, but by that point, the film has abandoned the elitism and battles between classes that should have been constant throughout.
I Came By slots in as an example of Netflix’s recent expansion of its British content. It does have problems, including the needless pileup of twists and the anticlimactic ending. Nevertheless, it is a tense, grisly and at times chilling crime thriller. The mix of urban and rural settings shows that the clashes between class statuses are present even when that theme is abandoned. The performances (particularly from Bonneville and Macdonald) are great across the board, elevating the film when it starts to drag. And the terror that Babak Anvari creates from this home invasion set-up is quite effective, even when I Came By stumbles its way to the finishing line.
I Came By was released in UK cinemas on August 19, and globally on Netflix on August 31, 2022.