Xavier Dolan has quickly become one of my favorite modern directors. His appeal, for me, goes beyond his stories (though they’re great in their own right). It’s his tonal approach to filmmaking, his understanding of cinema and ability to embrace the past and make it his own that’s so intoxicating. So often a director influenced by the past gets caught up in mimicry and the final product feels somewhat alien. Dolan has no such issue.
Up until now all of his films have felt like they came from somewhere extremely personal and now, here comes Tom at the Farm, a psychological thriller that’s been hard to describe to anyone that’s asked. It’s a departure from Dolan’s first three films — I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways — for a wide range of reasons. While he wrote it, just as he did the other three, it’s an adaptation, the city is abandoned for the country, his New Wave influences can only be felt around the edges and, most obvious, it’s in no way a relationship or family drama, which is all he’s really made up until now. This is a film of a different sort.
I’ve tried to come up with something to compare it to, but I’m at a loss. Cinematically it feels unique in its own right and my first instinct is to call it some sort of B-movie thriller, though that too doesn’t feel right, just as a tonal comparison to something like Repulsion or Diabolique is similarly wrong. Tom at the Farm has a madness all its own.
Based on Michel Marc Bouchard‘s play of the same name, Dolan plays the title character, a young ad agency employee who takes a trip out to the country to attend a funeral only to learn the mother (Lise Roy) of the deceased doesn’t know who he is or his relationship to her dead son, Guillame. However, her other son, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), seems fully aware of who he is and sets about tormenting Tom, physically and mentally.
Tom’s first instinct is to leave, and he almost gets away after the funeral, but the decision to return for his luggage proves his downfall. He must play along with Francis’ game, including made up stories of Guillaume’s fake girlfriend, all for the sake of his mother, while learning of Francis’ dark secret and why he’s shunned all around town.
Tom at the Farm has an unexpected psychological vibe and it moves at a quick pace. New details and twists in the story are constantly being revealed. A variety of strange situations bump into seeming normality, but nothing is normal about this story. It’s presented in just such a way that while Dolan appears to slowly be lifting the curtain, there always seems something more is left in the shadows.
What I’m most curious about is why he chose this as his fourth feature. In a lot of ways it seems he chose it simply so he could flirt with a new genre. I didn’t get the overall personal feeling I got from this three previous films. It’s colder, and yet mildly campy with a level of over-the-top melodrama of which I wasn’t quite sure if the audience was meant to laugh or take entirely serious.
Dolan’s directorial eye is the strongest asset this film has. His compositions and seamless editing in conjunction with the sinister cinematography from AndrÃ© Turpin are enticing, even though the story itself begins to meander at times. In a lot of ways it felt very experimental, especially during scenes where the film’s aspect ratio continued to change and the image began closing in on itself from top to bottom as the moment grew in intensity.
I enjoyed seeing Tom at the Farm in the same way anyone enjoys seeing the latest work from one of their favorite directors. At the same time, it’s not his best. While I’m almost certain I’ll feel comfortable watching anything Dolan makes from this point forward in the same way you can throw on most any Alfred Hitchcock film and know you’re in for a film you’ll, at the very least, enjoy, but Tom at the Farm isn’t the first film from Dolan I’d recommend anyone see. Though, for those already initiated, it’s an interesting diversion from his previous two films making it worth the watch at the very least.