“Today a part of me has died and I cannot cry”
For wunderkind Xavier Dolan, a film unreleased in America two years after completion is hard to believe. But that’s exactly what happened with his adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard‘s play Tom à la ferme [Tom at the Farm]. On the surface it should be his most marketable work to date and yet his fifth, Mommy, found itself on the shortlist for Oscar glory before we were even able to see it. Something gave distributors pause and perhaps that thinking wasn’t quite unfounded considering it also stands as Dolan’s only piece not to bow at Cannes. Personally I don’t see it. To me the film proves a captivating psychological thriller successfully winding in and out of its conventional trajectory. You fear for the lead (Dolan’s Tom) and constantly wonder if he’ll escape or, more tellingly, whether he wants to.
Emotions run high throughout this story of a young man traveling from Montreal to the country for his boyfriend’s funeral. The journey’s one of solitude with music on the radio, his only stops along the way taken to write a heartfelt eulogy on a napkin. His arrival too is met with isolation as no one is home. Eventually discovering a key by the front door underneath the bench he’d reserved as his perch, Tom lets himself in before promptly falling asleep at the kitchen table. In a quick transition, though, he’s found by his deceased Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy). Strangely unaware he’d be coming and mad “the one person who should have” hadn’t, she begins making him dinner. Confusion only grows stronger when she explains Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) will be back soon-a brother Tom knew nothing about.
Setting the stage for even more secrets instead of paving a path for Tom to explain the exact nature of his relationship with Guillaume to the rest, the film turns dark straight away. Francis wakes his houseguest up in the middle of the night with hand over mouth, threatening that he better say some nice things at the ceremony before promptly leaving for good. We’re quick to infer then that not everyone is in the dark to Guillaume’s sexual orientation and perhaps it’s only Agathe who is. Keeping the ruse becomes Tom’s existence just in case the temperamental Francis flies completely off the handle. It’s a good bet he would too considering everyone in town seems to fear him. In fact, it starts to look as though the Longchamps family was kept hidden from Tom for a reason.
His evolution in “captivity” takes many twists and turns from here that you should experience yourself to fully appreciate. One moment Francis is beating Tom up and the next Stockholm syndrome is so prevalent that the young man defends his oppressor and buys into the idea it’s become his duty to stay and help on the farm. And all the while mom retains her manufactured smile even when we’re aware she’s cognizant of some of what’s happening around her. She’s anything but stupid, just perhaps willfully delusional. Things can only get worse when Tom and Guillaume’s coworker Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) arrives to throw a wrench in the proceedings as the fake girlfriend Francis has been telling his mother little bro had. So don’t judge my thinking the Longchamps a family the caliber of Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Sawyers.
You must be frightened of what’s occurring because Tom eventually isn’t. He starts off crazed and anxious to bail, but Agathe’s heart guilts him into staying. Then things happen to render her well being inconsequential in comparison to his-right before the escalating chaos is met with smirks rather than frowns. It’s here that Tom at the Farm truly excels with a sense of unpredictability. The happy face Tom cultivates ultimately might not be a mask for survival as previously assumed and the pull Francis and Agathe have on him forces us to realize Guillaume left and never returned so long ago with good reason. There’s also the act that turned the entire town against Francis (finally shared towards the end with a bit of coaxing), but the psychological hold wielded might be even more volatile.
Dolan expertly builds tension by his abrupt yet contextually relevant cuts of cause and effect without anything in between. The best use of this is when Tom stands up for himself for the first time to Francis. His threat is met with a black screen quickly replaced by a motion blur of corn stalks as he runs for his life. The vegetable slices at him yet he feels nothing but the pulse-pounding fear of what will happen when Francis catches up. Tom’s reconditioning gets gradually scarier after this until you wonder if an affair might actually spark between this unlikely pair. And then we see the pain in their eyes; the horror when it seems Agathe has looked beyond the ruse and the sorrow underlying the violence wrought as though Tom and Francis really are forming a lasting, familial bond.
This is the entirety of the film-there’s no twist. It’s just one man traversing the unknown for a love who tried to shield it from sight. Dolan puts the harsh physical and emotional brutality front-and-center with his bullied figure and Cardinal’s formidable foe, but there’s a wealth of subtlety as well. There has to be considering preconceptions and common sense flip so constantly for this trio trapped in their own little world. Meaningful revelations come in seemingly throwaway lines like a cab driver refusing to take Sarah up the Longchamps’ driveway or actions like Francis frequenting liquor stores instead of bars. Everything has purpose within the bigger picture as newly erected walls or windows keeping Tom in or providing the appearance of freedom. Guillaume was lost years before his death and now Tom can take his place.