Right from the start of Tom at the Farm, the blond, shaggy-haired Tom (Xavier Dolan) knows he’s a stranger in a strange land. He just doesn’t know how strange yet. Tom has driven from Montreal to a dairy farm in the remote countryside (no GPS or cell phone reception) to attend the funeral of his closeted boyfriend Guillaume. The dead boy’s mother, the sad widow Agathe (Lise Roy), welcomes Tom warmly, happy to have one of her son’s friends present.
Guillaume’s older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), a hulking brute, isn’t quite as pleased. Francis knows his brother was gay, and he knows, too, the role Tom played in his life. Although Tom has written a heartfelt eulogy to read at the memorial service, Francis asks him — threatens him, really — to say a few words about Guillaume’s supposed girlfriend instead, then pack his things and leave.
Tom’s initial response is to bail and go home. But his love for Guillaume is genuine, his mourning earnest. He stays to pay his respects. Gradually, he folds (or is he lured?) into the lives of Agathe and Francis. He becomes a kind of stand-in for Guillaume, filling the void the dead man left behind. But there are consequences.
Dolan was 24 when he co-wrote and directed Tom at the Farm (the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013), and he’s since made another, even better picture — the dysfunctional-family drama Mommy, which opened earlier this year. But Tom at the Farm isn’t the slightest bit dated and, in the context of Dolan’s career, still intrigues. The movie sheds the excessive indulgences of Dolan’s previous work (Laurence Anyways, Heartbeats, I Killed My Mother) and hints at the maturation of his storytelling instincts. This is the work of a gifted young filmmaker starting to harness his talents without losing his distinctive voice.
The movie teases early on we may be in full-on creep-out genre turf, from the brooding violins of Gabriel Yared’s lavish, Hermannesque score to images (the carcass of a cow being dragged across the dirt) that imply danger and menace. A shot of Tom arriving at the farm, his car’s headlights piercing the eerie morning mist, invokes the iconic arrival of Father Merrin to the Georgetown home of a possessed little girl in The Exorcist (Tom’s about to encounter a demon of his own, just not the satanic kind).
But despite moments of intense suspense and glints of bizarre horror, Tom at the Farm is ultimately a psychological thriller — a movie about the secrets we sometimes try to bury deep inside us in order to deceive ourselves, and the tumult that ensues when they prove too strong and primal to stay hidden. With his Kurt Cobain-mane and rock-star attitude, Tom initially seems like he’s the one who will be causing trouble (that piece of luggage he wheels around might as well have been a guitar case). But there, too, Dolan surprises us, revealing Tom to be an ordinary young man who is just trying, like everyone else, to make sense of the world around him. He may be vulnerable and even scared. But Tom will only be pushed so far, though, before he starts to fight back.
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu.
Director: Xavier Dolan.
Screenwriters: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard.
An Amplify Releasing release. Running time: 102 minutes. Vulgar language, strong adult themes. In French with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque, Tower Theater.