It’s a wonder, then, that the film took so long to reach U.S. audiences. The film premiered two years ago at Venice to critical acclaim, securing over 40 international buyers, though its prospects remained bleak stateside. Today, Amplify will finally release Dolan’s highly-anticipated thriller, and we’re happy to report that it’s been worth the wait.
The opening scene of “Tom at the Farm” is a microcosm of Dolan’s style. We open on a tight frame. It’s a suicide note, as it is being written. All we can see is pen and paper, yet the pauses between hasty words carry with them heavy emotion. We know we’re in a car; the agonizing beep of the open door heightens the feeling of anxiety. Then, black.
Dolan is Tom, a young man from Montreal whose boyfriend has just committed suicide. Knowing next to nothing of his former partner’s family, Tom sets out to the countryside to attend the funeral. He arrives at a very modest farmhouse, where’s he’s invited to stay with the deceased young man’s mother. “You will sleep in his bed,” the mother says.
Then there’s Francis, the older brother Tom never knew his boyfriend had. Francis accosts the grieving Tom mid-shower. A raging homophobe, Francis “knows what Tom is” and will do everything in his power to keep that secret from his mother. And so Tom becomes a pawn in an elaborate charade. Through violence and threat, the sadistic brother forces Tom to lie about his deceased boyfriend. And as the lies compound, reality warps into nightmare.
The film exudes a living poetry as it plays with visual motifs and calls back images and words from earlier scenes. When Tom arrives at the farm and wanders the cornfields, his hair becomes virtually indistinguishable from the straw, portending the ways in which he will assimilate into the family. The suicide note is later repeated aloud in a very different and horrifically morbid context. The house is number 69 (and with Dolan, you know that’s not unintentional). The ending, too, rests entirely upon a repeated visual that haunts to the bone.
The most interesting poetry, though, is what exists between Tom and Francis as their relationship deepens. “You look like him,” Tom says to Francis of the uncanny sibling resemblance. Tom begins to transpose his residual romantic feelings onto Francis, who, in turn, comes to see Tom as a surrogate for his brother, someone he both needs and deplores. Their relationship tests the limits of masculinity, and all of the rivalry, jealousy, and displays of sexual power it contains. The haunting orchestral music and low-contrast cinematography give the scenes between the men a surreality uncommon in the horror-thriller fare of today.
“Tom at the Farm” plays like the sinister child of “North by Northwest” and “The Babadook.” Like “North by Northwest,” the bucolic setting turns threatening, and Hitchcockian pacing is at work throughout. Like “The Babadook,” “Tom at the Farm” turns a psychological state into horror. Grief, lies and webs of deceit are the flesh-eating monsters. The further people go to hide themselves from the truth, the more the horror swells. Homophobia and repression become demonic forces that destroy sanity and cause acts of brutal violence.
In keeping with his mastery of mood, Dolan has the ability to render any banal activity ominous. Small tasks at the farm and simple human interactions easily turn sinister by way of omission. Dolan knows what to reveal and what not to reveal; he’ll wait to show you someone’s face, or he won’t show it at all. He’ll play with your expectations so that you’ll think a murder has been committed in lieu of a routine slaughter.
But there’s another side of the coin to this particular strength of Dolan’s. Where it works against him at “Tom at the Farm” is in the realm of credibility. It’s not the performances — Dolan’s restrained, nuanced portrayal of Tom is right on the mark, as are those of the supporting characters — but rather the question of Tom’s agency. Why does he stay at the farm? Is he a hostage grappling with something like Stockholm Syndrome, or is he submitting himself to masochism? Though Tom does attempt to fly the coop several times, he never tries hard enough, and when he thwarts his own efforts, his motivations remain unexplained. He submits to the game too quickly and without real precedent. There’s a dramatic cognitive dissonance at play, and Dolan takes for granted that the audience will be willing to suspend disbelief. That’s where he missteps. In choosing not to build out Tom’s psychological framework, Dolan risks alienating more than a few viewers.
Although, admittedly, not this viewer.