Tucked in the rocky coastline of rural Maine, a grisly murder occurs late one night. A young woman stabs a man with a harpoon, later finding a bag of cash tucked under the floorboards of his seaside cabin. Unbeknownst to her, the man she’s killed is embroiled in a larger criminal scheme that goes back generations and includes a town brothel, a group of elderly women with a history of shady dealings, and the local cops who turn a blind eye.
If this sounds like the start to a Coen brothers’ movie, you’re right on the money. “Blow the Man Down,” the first feature from writer-director duo Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, plays like an update on the Coen brothers’ crime comedies, balancing noir themes with dry humor and wit. Like “Fargo” before it, “Blow the Man Down” is set in a highly specific time and place — a salty Maine village called Easter Cove — which, when it’s not being lit up by a colorful crew of shanty-singing fishermen, is rendered bleak and forbidding. When the film opens, sister pair Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) have just lost their mother, and their sense of grief and isolation are reflected in their grim environs. From the get-go, the film drips with a distinctly noir mood, and it feels fitting when Mary Beth, reeling from her mom’s death and wrapped up in a dangerous situation with a strange man, accidentally kills him.
Like many noir protagonists, Mary Beth is wry and withdrawn, a loner whose only goal is to get out of her small town. But the murder causes Mary Beth — and Priscilla, who agrees to help her sister cover it up — to tumble out of her otherwise normal routine into a fraught chain of events. The sisters swallow their disgust and fear as they snap into crime mode, hastily concocting a plan to clean up the mess without getting caught.
Krudy and Cole are deliberate in employing noir hallmarks here: a stormy ocean, a corpse jammed into a cooler, a bloody knife that the camera lingers on until it goes missing. Each image in the sequence is a winking reference to crime genre cliches, placing the movie in a tradition of purposeful noir pastiche.
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But as the plot grows knottier and the story continues to unfold, the film complements its neo-noir atmosphere with a notable theme of female camaraderie. Soon after Mary Beth’s doomed evening, another murder comes to light: this one of a young female employee of the town “inn,” which is really more of a brothel. No one’s sure who’s behind the death, but a cabal of mysteriously powerful elderly ladies have their eyes on the inn’s manager Enid (Margo Martindale). In a more conventional movie, these women — with their pastel sweaters, white hair, and freshly baked berry pies — could be pictured giggling over “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But don’t mistake them for latter day “Golden Girls”: These women have presided over the town’s underbelly for decades.
Such is the delicious allure of the world of “Blow the Man Down,” in which all of the major characters, including the duplicitous villain, are women. Mary Beth and Priscilla are wonderfully realized as the duo at the center, pairing divergent personalities — Priscilla is straitlaced and sensible while Mary Beth is wry and wild — with a genuine sisterly chemistry which they convey through witty exchanges and meaningful looks.
The trio of elderly women are sly and funny as the town “mobsters,” serving their visitors slices of pie as they extract information and acting innocent when a stray husband interrupts their meeting. Krudy and Cole are also devious in alluding to the distinctly feminine nature of their characters’ business dealings: Following one covert gathering, the camera abruptly cuts to a shot of a pancake mix box that reads “Mother’s Secret Pancake.” Later, when Enid faces the group, Martindale utters the movie’s best and most memorable line: “toodaloo, catty bitches.”
A mystery punctuated by moments of pitch black comedy, “Blow the Man Down” nods to hard-boiled thrillers while forging its own feminine path. Themes of female empowerment are never played too heavy-handedly, and are instead taken as a given in a world seemingly run by women. By the end, it’s clear that that the film’s title, which refers to a fisherman ditty that recurs in the film, is also an apt descriptor for the movie as a whole: a uniquely female project from start to finish, both in making and in message.