There are a lot of directors who try and replicate the great tension building aspects of legendary master Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, Hitchcock’s name has become synonymous with the thriller genre, and his knack for building said tension and creating such moody atmosphere and capitalizing on key moments has made many a director restless in their attempt to capture just a mere essence of his mastery. Many have tried, many have failed, but every once in a while a film comes out that feels truly Hitchcockian, like a film the master himself would have made had he had the time, money and lack of censorship restraints.
‘Tom at the Farm’ is that kind of movie.
Xavier Dolan has made a real name for himself exploring the relationships between mothers and sons and the plight of the misunderstood gay man, and he fuses those two together in this rapturous thriller adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s stage play. What he does here though, is make this film about so much more without making it ‘feel’ like it’s about too much. The explorations of grief, universally felt, and the decline into reckless and even obsessive abandon is so brilliantly fitted into the fabric of the film itself that the audience is almost blindsided by their existence. Dolan has been accused of being melodramatic and too obvious in his progression of points, but here Dolan shows a very mature and very unique side to his filmmaking ability. Nothing is forced, nothing is pushed too hard. He shows incredible restraint in his dissection of themes, allowing everything ‘unsaid’ to do most of the talking.
While not a perfect movie, ‘Tom at the Farm’ shows Dolan’s incredible range as a director, and I hope that he pushes himself to explore, and perfect, this genre in the future.
The film opens with words being jotted down on what appears to be a napkin. Those words, written by the grieving Tom, are for his deceased lover’s funeral, for which he is traveling to the middle of nowhere. His lover, Guillaume, never disclosed his sexual orientation to his mother, and so Tom is already on edge as he descends on the family farm, but soon after meeting Agathe, Guillaume’s mother, Tom realizes he’s in for more than he expected. The presence of Francis, Guillaume’s brother, looming over Tom as he sleeps, presents an outright antagonist, a man bent on preserving his family’s reputation and his mother’s memory of her dead son. Francis is aware of just who Tom is, and he isn’t ready to allow Tom to expose himself. Forcing him into a lie, Francis’s domineering presence begins to swallow Tom whole, consuming him almost, and soon he begins to sink into a way of life, a routine almost, that betrays everything he knows to be correct.
‘Tom at the Farm’ can, at times, feel a touch underdeveloped. As I reflect on what Dolan did here, and the story that unfolded, I can’t help but wish a few loose ends were tightened. I am not familiar with the source material, and so I’m not sure if this ambiguousness was what Bouchard intended, but there are aspects of this film I wish had a little more detail added to them. This is especially felt in the film’s climax, which is sudden and tonally heightened to perfection and yet almost feels too abrupt, too thin.
Still, ‘Tom at the Farm’ is a film that I feel takes some time to establish itself in one’s memory. My feelings for the film flittered around, changing and morphing and concluding and re-concluding so many times since I saw it last week. While watching I was spellbound, when it ended I was confused, when I went to bed I was full of pondering and when I awoke I was smitten, completely. It’s a film that, as I said, works those themes in so fittingly and so delicately that one doesn’t initially notice them, but as the pieces start to fall into place and time starts to pass, one starts to understand where Dolan was going with this.
Francis is one of the most compelling antagonists in film that I’ve ever seen. The use of sexuality as a ploy to flesh out a villain is not something new, but Dolan and his actor, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, develop something so richly textured and so intricately detailed that he feels like a completely new and remarkably original creation. As Francis’s mental state shows fractures and bouts of intense violence and unstable domination, the film’s atmosphere almost feels completely tied up in just WHO this man is. In fact, Dolan uses Francis as a plot point almost as much as he uses him as a character, because it is through the development of this one character we see the themes presented take full shape. As Francis exposes himself, ever so slightly (and in such fleeting moments) to Tom, we begin to see the full breadth of even Tom’s own sanity, and the deteriorating effect of Tom’s grief (haunting, and eventually destructive) begins to become evident. Tom latches himself to Francis, a man who is brutal, controlling and abusive, and yet the rationalization in the fabric of the film’s scenes feels wholly believable just because of the way that Dolan and Cardinal build this one man.
The more I think about it, the more I’m completely unnerved by it.
Dolan’s exploration of grief is an admirable one, for sure. The film is unsettling and uncomfortable for all the right reasons, and it is anchored by a very capable ensemble and a very capable director. The way that Dolan handles key moments (the tango scene, the mother’s verbal attack on Sarah) show just the right amount of melodrama to sustain a tone while creating a true sense of heightened awareness.
After this, I’d LOVE for Dolan to get his hands on some Highsmith, maybe an adaptation (a TRUE adaptation) of ‘Strangers on a Train’!
B+ from me. This is such a strong work, and one that shows Dolan's range and capable hands. I wish this wound find a wider audience.