With “Laurence Anyways”, famously young and impressively pompadoured Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan proved that he was unafraid to embrace the cosmic drama inside the human heart, his epic three-hour opus believably extrapolating the intimate emotional developments of a challenged couple into the stuff of grand and gaudy opera. Every scene ends with tears and every tear is an aria unto itself, the subtitles like a libretto in blips.
Certainly his (anyone’s?) most extravagant film and arguably still his best, “Laurence Anyways” offers so much from Dolan’s imagination that it leaves almost nothing to ours, observing heartbreak with the same panoptic rigor with which Jeremy Bentham hoped to observe prisoners. The comparatively stark aesthetic of “Tom at the Farm” would be enough to represent a severe new direction for the burgeoning auteur, but Dolan’s latest work most fundamentally feels like a change of pace because of how it internalizes the psychology that he once lived to incept.
Adapted from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, “Tom at the Farm” begins with the eponymous protagonist (played by Dolan himself, here scraggly and bleach blonde) heading into the vaguely homophobic heart of Canada’s farmland in order to attend his boyfriend’s funeral. The first images briefly locate us in the filmmaker’s usual mode as we see Tom’s hand scratching out a confessional, tear-stained eulogy onto a paper towel, but the title card effectively wipes the slate clean, cutting to a distant helicopter shot that will prove emblematic of the remove at which Dolan keeps us from his characters. That his name was “Guillaume” is one of the only two things we ever learn about Tom’s dead lover, though there’s much to be gleaned from the broken mother (Lise Roy) and brutish older brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal as Francis) that survive him on the family farm.
When Tom first arrives at the grey and isolated estate, his first inclination is to run, but Guillaume’s mother insists that he spend the night and speak at the funeral. Tom’s sleep is later awoken by Francis’ mammoth arm clamping onto his face in the dark, the musclebound cowhand violently insisting that Tom leave ASAP, and forbidding the sullen visitor from telling Guillaume’s mother that her late son was gay. Francis is obsessed with perpetuating the fiction of Guillaume’s heterosexuality, going so far as to invent a girlfriend for his dead brother despite the fact that his tormented mom never openly suggests that she would have loved her son any less because of his place on the Kinsey scale.
Francis is such a threatening figure that Tom’s intended drive back to Montreal quickly assumes the urgency of a daring escape. But a logistical hiccup (or is it something more?) compels Tom to turn around at the last second and head back to the farm. It isn’t long before the young man is seduced into some variation of Stockholm Syndrome, learning how to milk the cows with lasers (yeah) and enjoying a bruising flirtation with the brutal man who mercurially alternates between playing host and captor.
Rife with the psychosexual tension of a Claude Chabrol potboiler and touched by the stranded unease of Li Yang’s “Blind Mountain”, Dolan’s thriller is a slippery little thing, so unstable that it occasionally even switches aspect ratios when Tom and Francis are tussling, as though the two men only achieve a clear sense of purpose while physically pursuing one another. Dolan is clearly smitten with the idea of putting his own twist on the genre, and the greatest takeaway from this staunchly opaque effort might be that the emerging director can put your heart in your throat as capably as he can tear it out of your chest. If “Tom at the Farm” is occasionally impenetrable as a drama, it’s seldom less than gripping as an exercise in suspense, especially when Dolan’s precise sense of timing revitalizes otherwise familiar moments – the film’s sole jump-scare completely embarrasses the obvious tricks of most contemporary horror directors simply by having the patience to wait a beat longer than expected.
Dolan doesn’t need much plot on which to mount his considerable suspense, and certain scenes feel like they exist only to provide a visual backdrop for Gabriel Yared’s urgently bleating string score. A knowing tribute to Bernard Herrmann, Yared’s music breaks the silence like the sound of someone falling up a flight of stairs, the mess of cellos often arriving almost at random as if the film itself were unable to understand Tom’s psychology. Dolan’s trembling performance isn’t especially exciting by itself, but one of the benefits of starring in the film is that he doesn’t need to betray the interiors of his character. Dolan the actor and Dolan the director are mutually comfortable with Tom being little more than a raw nerve, the two sides forming a closed circuit of expression.
“Tom at the Farm” seems to be drifting into more conventional territory when it introduces a major new character in the third act, but Dolan uses the latecomer only to deepen the emotional abstractions. Every revelation about Guillaume’s family history further complicates our regard for Tom’s actions, and what starts like a thriller about homophobia as a promise becomes, through its own inscrutability, a thriller about homophobia as a threat that’s seemingly always in season. “Tom at the Farm” may not prove that Xavier Dolan has matured (nor does it confirm that he had to), but it’s compelling evidence that the emperor doesn’t always need to wear all of his clothes to prove that he owns them.
SCORE: 7.7 / 10