Xavier Dolan’s latest film to get a U.S. distribution (after debuting in Venice in 2013) is his oddest film yet, a distinct turn in his style, and the official synopsis offers no hint of what lies ahead:
“A grieving man meets his lover’s family, who were not aware of their son’s sexual orientation.”
That barely skims the surface. It’s a simple summation of a fascinating story, one that is much more content watching its characters squirm that letting us in on their pasts. We know that Tom’s boyfriend’s family didn’t know about his sexuality, which makes his emotional appearance at the funeral so confounding.
Tom (Dolan) is stuck in a sadomasochistic dance with his lover’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), a sexually-charged duet where neither is getting what they want and Tom is saddled with abuse. It’s an intriguing push and pull between the two characters as Tom becomes increasingly embedded in their lives as a surrogate stand-in for a grieving mother and an outlet for Francis’ more aggressive tendencies. Caught in-between his own grief–of which he keeps the full extent of under wraps–the family’s web of grief he’s found himself cast in, and the domineering curiosity of Francis, Tom must grapple with lifting himself from abuse’s shadow and away from the farm.
Tom at the Farm marks a departure for Dolan, who typically writes his own original scripts, with this being an adaptation of the play by Michel Marc Bouchard. While the film possesses his signature style, the story is much more straightforward, with a clear-cut three-act system, rather than an odyssey through the course of someone’s life such has been the case with Mommy and Laurence Anyways.
It’s also, easily, Dolan’s strongest performance in front of the camera to date. He’s always possessed an impish, charismatic presence, but not always an effortless one, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that he is more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. Tom, however is the biggest character he’s gotten to play with, getting to change his hair and reduce his posture to a slump, and he comes alive in this role in ways we haven’t seen before. He and Cardinal sell the characters’ strange and charged dynamic to make the range of their interactions compelling.
The film adopts a whiplash pace, brimming with tension from the first overhead shot of Tom walking hunched up to his lovers house, abandoned in the middle of a farmland nowhere, to a The Shining-influenced scene at a bar where Tom’s inner psychosis begins to unravel. We’re up close and personal with these characters, fearing their next move, fatal mistake, or retaliation. For a film so lacking in violence to stir up suspense, we’re still leaning forward in our seats in anticipation and concern. It’s his most mature directorial effort thus far (although for sheer emotional wallop, Mommy takes the cake). There is a poise and a polish to Tom at the Farm that’s been largely missing in his past efforts, where his style is grandiose and enthusiastic.
The color contrast is still beautiful to look at. Take the aforementioned bar scene, where greens push through the screen and Dolan’s blond hair frames his pale and harried face. The settings are phenomenal, with a confrontation in a vast cornfield visualizing Tom’s loneliness, and there’s a scene in a barn which includes an abrasive dance that’s lit so that all of the beams glow and you’re swept up just as Tom is. Dolan has grown increasingly stronger and more confident as a director, and his fifth feature is certainly his most interesting, especially if you compare it to his prior efforts. I’ve never shied from singing Dolan’s praises–he ticks a lot of the boxes of what makes me love cinema, but there’s no doubt in my mind that films such as J’ai tue ma mere and Heartbeats had amateurish elements. Tom at the Farm is a film by a director who understands his style and his craft and has a solid foundation on which to tell his story.
Accompanied by Gabriel Yared’s unsettling score, Tom at the Farm is an old-fashioned thriller. Elbow deep in the inner turmoil of its characters, with a good old-fashioned monster in Francis along with a good old-fashioned horror movie setting , the film passes quickly, running at a brief 95 minutes, but every shot counts, and every moment matters. Stylish, heart pounding, and featuring some strong performances, Tom at the Farm is the movie to see this week and is one of Dolan’s finest efforts to date.
Tom at the Farm is out in limited release today.