Tom at the Farm
By Hans Pedersen, October 2015 Web Exclusives.
When saying that one “likes” a particular film, there’s a world of difference between enjoying the movie and respecting the way it was made.
In the case of Tom at the Farm, by gifted young Canadian director Xavier Dolan, one can find plenty to respect, including the tightly knotted plot and skillful blend of image and music.
The French-language thriller is admirably made, but it is also a remarkably disturbing movie that's so chilling it may leave some viewers cold.
As in most of his films, Dolan both performs and directs, and here he plays the lead role of Tom, a young man coping with the death of his lover. Driving from Montreal, he arrives at an isolated farm to introduce himself to the family of his late partner, Guillaume.
The young man with the shock of shaggy, dyed-blond hair seems surprised to learn that Guillaume’s mother, Agathe (Lisa Roy), has never heard of him. Tom simply describes himself as a friend of her late son’s and, with no hotels in the area, he’s invited to sleep there.
The fact that Tom and Guillaume were lovers is not even immediately made clear. Their homosexuality is confirmed by the aggressive behavior of Guillaume's homophobic brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who accosts Tom in bed in the middle of the night, getting on top of him and telling him to keep quiet about who he really is.
During the funeral, Tom decides to remain silent about the same-sex romance – a relationship that he never knew was a secret in the first place. Soon the brother is committing sadistic acts like holding him down in the toilet stall.
Under Francis’ psycho-sexually charged watch, Tom is forced to sustain an eerie deception, and tell Agathe that her dead son has a grieving girlfriend back home.
Like a family who refuse to move out of a haunted house, Tom does not leave soon enough – until his means of escape is thwarted.
It’s disturbing how quickly the stakes escalate here. Calling this a game of cat-and-mouse is apt, since mice that are treated as playthings by felines are likely getting bruised up and choked repeatedly. And in a terrible twist, Tom has a surprising new reaction toward the muscular man who reminds him of his dead lover.
The story unfolds cryptically, so the grief-stricken characters' motives are both puzzling and intriguing. Francis embodies a blend of desire and repulsion, and those conflicting emotions produce a strange brew of sexual energy and sadism. The situation rapidly descends into an unspooling cycle of abuse, until Tom’s neck is blackened with bruises.
Many may be repelled by the violence in this tale about how unresolved feelings can become snarled into violent homophobia.
Delving into this dark territory, the director works to sustain the tension over the long haul, but after an hour, the abuse almost becomes too much and the story threatens to dissipate. That’s when a woman shows up claiming to be Guillaume’s girlfriend, Sarah, and the situation goes haywire as the intrigue is jacked up another couple notches.
Most of the performers here are stellar, including Dolan, who has been acting on camera since he was 6 years old and began directing films at age 20.
The director always seems to skillfully blend the perfect song with dramatic images or moments in a story. At one point, Sarah is left alone in a car with Francis in a dimly lit parking lot: the shot of Tom looking warily back at the vehicle, combined with the synth strings of “Sunglasses at Night” by Canadian singer Corey Hart emanating from a bar, elicit a feeling of dread and certain doom.
There’s also an underlying message linking violence to America, from the moments they switch from French to English to express an angry thought, to the USA jacket Francis wears in the final scene – a sentiment made more explicit by the final song.
Gorgeous frame composition in other scenes, including one of the final shots as Francis stands in front of a shovel, punctuate this drama. And the final scene might make your skin crawl.
This peculiar meditation on what causes people to fail to run from their abusers, and cross the line into empathy, is disturbing, but many are bound to appreciate the filmmaker’s technique. Dolan’s film is well-constructed and beautifully made, but this psychological thriller may be a little too heavy for some viewers.