Tom at the Farm: Country Retreat, by Aaron Pinkston
At only 26, Xavier Dolan has already left a mark on world cinema with his five vibrant and emotionally complex features. For some unknown reason, his fourth feature, Tom at the Farm, is only now making its way to the United States – more than six months after his most recent (and most successful) film, Mommy, was released. With this film, Dolan takes his distinctive style and tilts it to a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. The film boasts a bombastic score, enigmatic characters, and a near-constant threat of violence, but lives in the genre in only the slightest touches. Otherwise, Tom at the Farm feels like Dolan-lite; an interesting exercise and entertaining enough, but an unremarkable result.
In the film, Dolan plays the title character, a grieving young man who leaves his life in Montreal to visit the family of his dead lover. Tom immediately grows close with the mother, who is unaware of her son’s true relationship with Tom. She adored her son’s seemingly perfect life – complete with the appearance of a steady, heterosexual relationship. Guillaume’s older brother Francis, who now oversees the property, is a strong-willed and angry man who doesn’t open his arms to Tom quite as quickly. The course of the film develops the strained relationship of the two men, from coldness and violence to some surprising places. When Guillaume’s faux-girlfriend Sara arrives after the funeral, the dynamics are shaken to heightened levels.
Many of Dolan’s films center around unusual, makeshift families and Tom at the Farm is probably the strangest example. Unlike the other families, these people don’t need each other to balance their emotional lives. Being together may help fill the hole that was left when Guillaume died, but they otherwise tear each other apart with their hatred and anger. The developing relationship between Tom and Francis shows the typical signs of an abusive one – Francis treats Tom with violence and scorn, but shows him just enough tenderness to keep him hooked on. Much of the film’s thriller quality comes through their dynamic, as it leaves a lot of their emotions and motivations unsaid. Unfortunately, though, its lack of mystery (despite it trying to play at one) holds the film back from truly delving into a genre contraption.
Dolan has been at his best when he is at his most indulgent, runtime included. Laurence Anyways and Mommy, both well over two hours, were able to take a small, personal story to an epic emotional scale. Dolan’s verve for montages and offbeat moments could fill around the drama and character building. At just under 100 minutes, Tom at the Farm tries to keep those same types of non-narrative moments, which ultimately leaves less time to fully establish Tom and the surrounding characters. One could possibly describe the film as “taut,” but I’m not sure if there is enough narrative for that to be completely accurate. To the film’s credit, it begins with Tom heading to the small town and never strays through flashbacks or subplots. Keeping the film in one location between only a few characters plays into the thriller beats and keeps the runtime low.
While there are still the sonic pop montages that have become a staple of Dolan’s work, much of the soundtrack is a classic thriller string-heavy score, which really gives the film its clearest connection to classic Hitchcock. The use of music is a bit on-the-nose, trying to push the film into a box it doesn’t easily fit into. Don’t get me wrong, Gabriel Yared’s score is beautiful on its own, very reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, but the film’s narrative can’t support it.
Tom at the Farm is based on a play written by French-Canadian Michel Marc Bouchard. I don’t doubt that on the stage this story could be very tense and thrilling, but something is lost in translation when put on the screen. It might just not be the right material for Xavier Dolan, who seems to compromise just enough on his style to take away from what makes him an interesting filmmaker. Ultimately, Tom at the Farm film sits somewhere between a satisfying genre exercise and the complete vision of its filmmaker, sullying the idea of what could be if both are working at their highest level.