Tom at the Farm is a psychological thriller that’s largely lacking the genre’s trademark tautness and narrative drive, opting instead for the meandering, fitful momentum and detached intimacy of a contemporary indie drama. It’s not an entirely successful combination, although the film has moments of impressive intensity, a seductive visual style, and one superb performance.
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writers: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard
Editor: Xavier Dolan
Cinematographer: André Turpin
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
Premiere: September 2, 2013 - Venice
US Theatrical Release: August 14, 2015
US Distributor: Amplify Releasing
Tom at the Farm is the latest from the precocious 26-year-old Xavier Dolan, who has written and directed five films (and acted in four of them) since 2009’s semi-autobiographical I Killed My Mother. While Tom at the Farm touches on some of his favored themes—the relation between gay and queer identity and family ties, the complex sexual undertow lurking beneath ostensibly platonic relationships—it’s actually not a Dolan original, but is instead adapted from playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s play of the same name. (Dolan and Bouchard share credit for the screenplay.)
Dolan, for the most part, directs with a keen eye and gives a capable performance in the leading role, hitting all the necessary beats. However, he does seem a little out of his depth here, his stabs at Hitchcockian suspense feeling shaky at best alongside the subtler, more complex character scenes that give the film depth. Occasionally, the film is able to reconcile these competing impulses, yielding sequences where tension and intimacy collide. Equally often, however, it veers into silliness, flattening its characters’ stranger edges for the sake of attempted thrills.
Tom at the Farm begins with its title character’s lonely drive into rural Quebec, where he arrives at a desolate ranch and wanders into the empty homestead, takes a seat at the kitchen table, and waits patiently for the residents’ return, ultimately falling asleep in his chair. He’s awakened by the arrival of a perplexed older woman, Agathe.
As the film unfolds from here, fragments of information begin to accrue, painting a picture of the fraught situation Tom has found himself in. He’s an editor at an ad firm in Montreal; he’s arrived at the farm for the impending funeral of his lover Guillaume; and, awkwardly, he’s only now learning that Guillaume had never come out to his family—and that Guillame has a brother, Francis, who’s gone to great pains to keep Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from Agathe, and is prepared to go even further. Francis soon draws Tom into a grim, abusive, sexually charged mind game that is, at different times, compelling, oddly rote, and rather implausible. Unfortunately, it becomes the plot’s primary focus, leaving some promising initial narrative wrinkles behind.
For example, standing just outside of the story’s thrust but looming large in the film’s thematic structure is Agathe, who is given vivid life by Lise Roy’s terrifically potent and controlled performance. It’s she who provides the film’s finest juxtaposition of psychological thrills and emotional depth—and perhaps its climactic moment—in a stark sequence that finds Agathe breaking down into tears as she screams out a litany of unanswered questions about her son’s life and death. As if to demonstrate the film’s faults, this comes on the heels of one of the weakest parts, a lifeless, unconvincing scene seemingly designed to demonstrate the extent to which Tom has been brainwashed by Francis.
Ultimately, although it has compelling parts, Tom at the Farm evinces some growing pains for rising auteur Dolan. But there’s no doubt he’s a talented filmmaker, and it’s hard not to look forward to his prolific streak continuing with a number of looming high-profile projects, such as his English-language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which is set to star Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, Jessica Chastain, and Susan Sarandon. Hopefully he’ll learn to strike a better balance between playing to his strengths and stepping into unfamiliar genres.