Film review: Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)

Tom at the Farm by Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan is on a roll.

His latest, the thriller Tom à la ferme, set in rural Quebec, opens in Montreal just as he is wrapping up post-production on his next film, Mommy, slated for release sometime this year.

In Tom à la ferme, Dolan portrays the eponymous character, a young advertiser from Montreal venturing into Middle of Nowhere, Que., for the funeral of his co-worker/lover, the closeted Guillaume. Tom’s a city mouse: one of the first scenes of the film involves him pulling over to break and kick his GPS navigator, which has obviously led him in the wrong direction. His phone also has no bars and as much as he tries to point it towards the sky, he cannot will his BlackBerry into service.

Tom gets to Guillaume’s mother Agathe’s (Lise Roy) house but no one’s there. He gets inside with a key he finds under the cushion of a bench on the quaint house’s front porch. Country folk are so trusting. He falls asleep – and drools – on the dinette table until he’s woken up by Agathe. She’s happy to see him because none of his other friends have shown up. Not even Sara, the woman Guillaume evidently told his mom was his girlfriend. Awkward. Doubly so when Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) threatens Tom: don’t mess with Mom’s image of Guillaume, or else. Tom à la ferme becomes Tom’s dance, his charade. The threat from Francis is real and the instances in which it’s materialized in the film are among its strongest: a spooky shower scene and a chase through a wheat field are especially well done – and, yes, Hitchcockian, even if Dolan, who edited Tom, has said in interviews that he had only seen the master of suspense’s Vertigo before making the film. The cinematography by André Turpin (who worked on Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies) is very strong in its visualization of Tom’s isolation and the score by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (The English Patient) keeps the tension up and bubbling throughout Tom à la ferme‘s 105 minutes.

Many have written that Tom is a departure from the kinds of films for which Dolan has come to be known for – dramas, character studies, complicated love stories – but I’d argue that those characteristics are present on top of the thriller element in Tom. It’s absolutely a love story: Tom, Agathe and Francis’ love for the deceased Guillaume and how much they are allowed to express that love. They’re all obsessed with an idea of him, and the lengths to which they go to protect that is their dramatic need.

Adapted from the Michel Marc Bouchard play by Dolan himself, Tom is another solid entry in Dolan’s repertoire. It’s part thriller, part love story, and one that reminded me of last year’s French film L’Inconnu du lac. Tom, like Franck in L’Inconnu, is drawn to a danger that is very much life-threatening and may very well be life-ending. He has opportunities to leave the farm but doesn’t act on them, or hesitates until they’re no longer an option for him. There’s a truly frightening Stockholm Syndrome thing going on between Tom and Francis, who can go from friend to foe alarmingly fast. I thought short stretches in the film were a bit dry, especially compared to some of Tom‘s more thrilling, juicy scenes. But the introduction of a character late in the second act gives the film a jolt, something Dolan was astute in doing. Tom à la ferme is a great psychological thriller, albeit a bit conventional, a word I’m disappointed to have to use to describe the work of the filmmaker who made Laurence Anyways.

Tom à la ferme opens in theatres across Montreal Friday, March 28, and with English subtitles at Cineplex Forum.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

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