Tom at the Farm, the fourth feature from Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, debuted way back in 2013 at the Venice Film Festival, but is only now getting a US release. It's a strange, atmospheric little tale that starts out as one movie and ends as something else entirely. I went into it without a shred of expectation, which is ideal, so I'll be sparing with the details.
Tom (Dolan, bespectacled and sporting a ludicrous bleached mop top) is a chic Montreal city kid who shows up at a farm in the Canadian countryside to mourn the untimely death of his boyfriend, Guillaume. There, he's taken in by Guillaume's mother, Agathe (Lise Roy) – who clearly isn't aware of her late son's homosexuality – and his domineering older brother, Frank (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Frank, who clearly is aware of the true nature of Tom and Guillaume's relationship, pressures Tom into sustaining the fiction that he is merely a friend and that Sarah (Evelyne Brochu), Guillaume's alleged girlfriend, is a real thing.
The story, based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, begins simply enough, and slowly makes its way into eerie and unexpected terrain. It's a thematic departure for Dolan, but in technical and visual terms, his fingerprints are all over it. Much of the camerawork is lyrical and stylized, and the composition of each shot is impeccable. Dolan and his cinematographer, André Turpin, evoke the bleak stillness of rural malaise with sweeping shots of grey skies and the sprawling countryside.
Tom at the Farm
Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
14 August 2015
Josh's Grade: C+
And, as he demonstrated in I Killed My Mother (2009), Dolan excels at somber interior shots, as when Tom and Agathe sit silently at the kitchen table, lit only from above, the rich contrast between light and dark rendering the scene at once claustrophobic and cavernous. The same goes for an extended sequence at a bar – one of the film's most engaging, both visually and dramatically – which could have provided the neon-drenched template for True Detective's second season. It's hard to fault Dolan for his technical work – he has a preternatural grasp of filmmaking as a visual art form.
The same can't be said for his control of the story itself. Too often in Dolan's work one gets the sense that he's stretching a thin conceit to its limit. That was certainly the case in his debut, Heartbeats, which for all its film-school flourishes was just a movie about a love triangle. And it's the case here, too, where the material struggles to fill the runtime. The result is a story that advances very slowly, if at all; it appears to meander, while the camera lingers, frequently and for long periods of time, on Dolan's face (when a critic at The Hollywood Reporter pointed out Dolan's tendency to emphasize his own face on screen, Dolan responded on Twitter: "you can kiss my narcissistic ass.").
I'm not proposing that a film must move briskly to be worthwhile. I’m simply positing that if a director insists on dragging his feet, it ought to mean something. Alexander Payne's Nebraska (2013) was similarly pastoral, and its pauses and use of silence felt deliberate. Tom at the Farm, however, at times drifts so aimlessly that I jotted down in my notebook, "This is f*cking interminable."
This aimlessness is made all the more unpalatable because so much of the action, if you can call it that, stems from bad, often inexplicable, decisions. There's a kind of psychological entrapment that emerges as events progress, but its gravity feels forced and even a little silly. Dolan, whether he knows it or not, is taking a hefty cue from Misery (1990). The difference, though, is that Tom isn’t actually trapped. How can we be expected to buy into this premise, of high stakes and intimidation, when salvation is a phone call away?
Fortunately, Tom at the Farm is populated by excellent actors. Cardinal, as Frank, is a maddening, intriguing blend of menace, sexuality, and knotty repression – he's a beast of a man, but there's enough twisty psychology roiling underneath to keep him interesting. And Brochu, who makes a brief appearance as Guillaume's faux-girlfriend Sarah, injects the laborious affair with a welcome dose of life and sanity. Best of all is Lise Roy, as Guillaume's grieving mother Agathe. She doesn't play a large role, but her performance is amazingly lifelike; she captures the impotence, despair, and fury of a mother grieving the death of her son, all while trying to maintain airs of hospitality and maternal grace. Toward the end, when she all but shatters in a fit of despondent incredulity, it's a staggering, heart-wrenching affair.
Dolan was 24 when he made this film. That's astonishingly young for a director, especially one with three features to his name at the time. Even Spielberg, himself a bit of a prodigy, didn’t land his first feature until he was 25. With his already formidable technical proficiency, it’s most likely the case that Dolan is still growing into his talent. Tom at the Farm is the work of a budding virtuoso who’s still searching for his voice as a storyteller (last year's Mommy, while flawed, boasted a more substantial narrative). I imagine that before long Dolan will reconcile his gifts with his ambitions, and when he does, we’ll have a serious contender in our midst.