It’s still a slow time for the movies, and there’s nothing in multiplexes I want to review with the limited time that I have. (Quick reminder that I’m opening a show this Friday and all donations through my fiscal sponsors at Fractured Atlas are tax-deductible.) So let’s see what’s dropped on Netflix recently.
Hmm… a suspense thriller with Hugh Bonneville, Kelly Macdonald, and George Mackay. Well, it’s got quite a cast. Let’s give it a shot.
The premise opens with Toby Nealey and Jameel “Jay” Agassi, respectively played by George Mackay and Percelle Ascott. These two childhood best friends are graffiti artists operating under the nom de guerre of “I Came By”. Their deal is that they break into rich people’s condos and mansions, but they don’t break anything or steal anything, just graffiti their walls.
The practice draws ire and controversy, and not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect. As one anonymous graffiti artist points out in the film, placing graffiti in a private place where it can’t be seen by everyone defeats the point of the medium. Moreover, breaking and entering is crossing a very dangerous line that could have serious unintended blowback against professional artists who are (rightly or wrongly) persecuted by law enforcement.
There’s also the matter of Toby’s mother (Lizzie, played by Kelly Macdonald), a therapist who works her ass off to support herself and her freeloading son. Of course Lizzie has no idea what her son is fighting for and what sacrifices he’s making, and he has no way of telling her for obvious reasons. Then again, it’s an open question as to what difference Toby and his friend are really making and whether any of this is worth it.
But then, Toby is an angry young man who doesn’t really have much of anything to lose. Compare that to Jay, who takes himself out of the game just as soon as he finds out his girlfriend (Naz, played by Varada Sethu) is pregnant. Bad enough that Jay was risking arrest as a young black man with a criminal record, but impending fatherhood makes the risk simply too much to bear.
Anyway, Toby and Jay have just fallen out when Toby decides to break into the house of one Hector Blake (Hugh Bonneville), a judge who made headlines and built a marvelous legacy through his work in promoting social equity for poor people, women, immigrants, people of color, and so on. Hector is retired now, but he’s still a brilliant legal mind and a noted philanthropist with strong connections in politics and law enforcement.
But of course Hector has skeletons in his closet. Or rather, he’s got… something in his basement. It’s not immediately clear what it is, but it’s got Toby so visibly spooked that he goes back to try and get it. He’s never heard from again.
Thus it’s up to Lizzie and Jay to try and figure out what happened to Toby and how Hector might be responsible. Once again, we have a dynamic between a reckless and desperate character with nothing to lose (Lizzie) and a character paralyzed by heartbroken cowardice because he’s got everything to lose (Jay). It’s a solid premise, with compelling themes of corruption, grief, and society’s tendency to keep bad people so powerful and good people so scared that the wealthy and influential can act with impunity.
But then the back half comes, and it all starts falling apart. Then the third act comes, and the movie flies clear off the rails. Then comes the climax and the denouement, so rushed and uninspired that I could swear it was all slapped together in last-minute reshoots.
First of all, there’s the reveal about Hector Blake and why he does the things that he does. To make a long story as short and spoiler-free as I can, it’s heavily implied that Hector is a closeted homosexual with a lifetime of childhood trauma at the hands of a father who was another closeted homosexual. I can’t speak with any authority on the optics of that backstory, but from where I’m sitting… yikes.
But easily the bigger problem with our antagonist is the power imbalance. Granted, our protagonists are operating out of desperation and fear, so it’s understandable that they’re not thinking clearly. Even so, it’s repeatedly shown that our protagonists are up against a foe who’s so much smarter and better-prepared than they are. Moreover, it’s a central thematic point of the movie that Hector is so well-connected and so well-versed in legal matters that he’s got all the cards. Indeed, Hector’s one potentially crippling flaw is his arrogance, as he’s totally and explicitly convinced that he’s going to get away with everything. And ultimately, that arrogance isn’t what brings him down.
From start to finish, our protagonists only have two methods for trying to bring down Hector. First is, they go to the cops. No matter how many times the police come up with no evidence, no matter how many times Hector uses his political connections to get out of jail, and no matter how many times London’s Finest prove themselves so incompetent that they couldn’t even track down a couple of high-profile graffiti vandal punks, our main characters keep calling the cops. And believe it or not, the second method is even dumber.
When going to the police inevitably fails, our lead characters resort to breaking into Hector’s home to search the house and confront him themselves. They invariably do this with no weapons, no backup, no lookouts, no exit plan, or much of any plan at all. What’s worse, they do this with absolutely zero awareness that they’ve just given the goddamn suspected homicidal maniac free license to outright kill the intruders and claim self-defense, legally clear.
I can understand an idiot protagonist doing this once, early on in the film. But to watch our lead characters repeatedly attempt the exact same goddamn thing, watching the same methods fail over and over, never once learning from the prior failures, gets annoying quickly. And what’s most annoying of all, these exact same failed techniques inexplicably succeed in the climax.
As the film goes on and Hector keeps on winning, it becomes increasingly improbable that our protagonists could find any way to win. That leaves only two options, and since the filmmakers aren’t going to leave us on a downer ending, we’re left with a fluke lucky shot that shouldn’t be enough to take down our villain, even though it somehow miraculously does. And even then, the ending gives me little hope that Hector won’t find some way to talk himself out of hot water and get our lead characters into deeper trouble AGAIN.
Even when it comes to what this movie gets right, there’s a troublesome repeated trend of the filmmakers overplaying their hand. The stated themes are great, but that limp ending fails to resolve them or provide much of any coherent statement. Much as I want to give the movie credit for knowing what to show and what to leave to the imagination, that only helps to build suspense in the first half. Sooner or later, the film has to really show us what we should be so scared of, and the film falls short on that front.
Most of all, the film has a repeated habit of cycling through protagonists. Yes, prematurely taking a protagonist out of commission is a good way to shock the audience off guard and leave us wondering what’s coming next. (Hitchcock’s Psycho is of course the definitive example, but I could point to Jon Snow’s apparent death in “Game of Thrones” as a more recent example.) Trouble is, that’s a trick you can only play once. When two or three protagonists get taken off the board, it leaves us to wonder if the story is focusing on the right character.
For example, imagine this exact same story centered around Hector Blake as an unsympathetic protagonist. Thus we have a story of a crooked judge using his philanthropy and public service as a means of justifying and repenting for his crimes. Thus we have a story about a deeply sick individual covering up his transgressions by killing more and more people, using elaborate political maneuvers and mental gymnastics to get away with his lies until it all finally comes undone. Now imagine that with such a seasoned actor as Hugh Bonneville acting against type and that could be an incredible suspense thriller.
Better yet, just imagine if Lizzie and Jay actually did what they should’ve done at multiple points in this movie and they hired a goddamn private investigator. This could’ve been a movie about a private eye trying to separate truth from fiction, working to console a grieving single mother, potentially endangering his life and career in finding the courage to confront a high-powered judge. Formulaic, perhaps, but at least it would’ve been functional.
In the past, I’ve complained a lot about how Netflix is an abject failure at promoting its own original content, and I stand by that statement. But looking back at I Came By and the vast majority of Netflix original films I’ve covered on this blog, I have to wonder how many of them were really worth promoting. Hell, I could think of quite a few Netflix products that were given substantially more than they were worth. (Looking at you, The Gray Man).
In the particular case of I Came By, I’m afraid it’s a terribly disappointing film in which the filmmakers had a solid premise, a marvelous cast, and no idea what to do with them. It was genuinely heartbreaking to watch the movie fall apart in real time right in front of me. Not recommended.