In tackling the genre of psychological thriller with Tom at the Farm, writer-director Xavier Dolan reigns in his often flagrant use of formalism without sacrificing his confidence as a filmmaker. Grieving the death of his boyfriend, the titular protagonist (played by a blond, mop-headed Dolan) travels to Northern Quebec to attend Guillaume’s funeral and offer his condolences to his late lover’s estranged family. Upon arriving at the isolated pastoral abode, Tom quickly discovers via a tense encounter with Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), a brother Tom was never told about, that Guillaume remained closeted to his mother (Lise Roy). Francis, privy to Tom’s relationship with Guillaume, mentally and physically bullies the unwanted gay visitor under the guise of protecting his mother’s delusions: “You don’t go until you’ve set thing straight,” Francis insists of Tom with both literal and figurative fervor.
Tom at the Farm charts the thorny mental avenues paved by grief, repression, and pernicious persuasion. Dolan, working from the eponymous play by Michel Marc Bouchard, takes full advantage of the erratic behavior of its sociopathic characters, milking madness that ends up serving the most sinister chills and layering on a baroque, thumping score to express the exaggerated minefield of the characters’ emotions. Tom at the Farm owes a good deal of its percolating tension and slippery tone to Hitchcock, and yet it also indicates a rather mature progression for a filmmaker whose influences often cannibalize his content (see 2010’s Heartbeats).
This startling thriller still possesses the mark of Dolan’s impish impulses, resisting humanization and never allowing the audience to fully understand a character’s motivations—yet, due to the plethora of close-ups, interior clues often come into focus. While it’s occasionally difficult to swallow the characters’ implausibility (the mother’s complete obliviousness, as well as Tom’s newfound love of farm life), Dolan successfully establishes a pervasive atmosphere of fear that emotionally rattles and, forgoing explicit characterization, consistently commits to a pernicious provincial setting of perpetually flip-flopping dynamics. Dolan is keyed into the salient idea that people are more horrifying when you consider less what they may have done and more what dreadful actions they’re capable of doing. Similar to Tom’s building pathology, the audience is likely to feel stuck in a Stockholm Syndrome-esque affliction: equal amounts repulsed and fascinated by Tom at the Farm’s eerily captivating and resonant environment.
While Tom at the Farm is most intrinsically linked to another impeccably tense erotic queer thriller that screened in Toronto, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake, the best film I saw at Toronto, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves also deals with stubborn characters plagued by uncomfortable internal conflicts in a horticulture-based setting. The film observes a trio of environmental activists, Josh, Dena, and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, respectively), who devise a grassroots plan to blow up an energy-sucking hydroelectric dam in Oregon. Acutely capturing the milieu of Pacific Northwest egos and granola ideologies in lush tones, the film benefits from its organic sense of community that it depicts, as well as the filmmakers’ artistic collaboration. Reichardt and co-screenwriter Jon Raymond, along with a cast of lived-in performances and the evocatively hazy lensing by Christopher Blauvelt, devote a fair amount of time to the process through which the characters gather materials and express their radical activism—noting that ecological awareness isn’t enough to make a change).
Midway through, however, Night Moves takes a subtle shift, mercurially echoing the effects of consequence in the chambers of the characters’ conflicted minds—in particular Josh, whose increasingly cloudy mind is pervaded by existential angst (deftly articulated by an anxiety-fueled Eisenberg). But as the story starts to spin its wheels, giving way to a protracted, glacially paced narrative mire that slightly reveals the plot’s flimsiness, it’s the minor details that elucidate most clearly. Reichardt is able to drum up imagery that serves as extraordinarily wry and lucid details captured through insightful glances: a man in a cow suit selling milk on the sidewalk, or a family watching The Price Is Right in their RV while “camping.”
Even when framing such images through an ecoterrorism-sympathizing lens, Reichardt tactfully avoids pushing an agenda, neither glamorizing nor condemning activism, instead opting for sensory extrapolation of the protagonist’s Dostoevskian moral dilemma. And, with its disturbing final shot (observed through an obscured mirror), Night Moves ambiguously hints that perhaps the devastating nadir of an activist’s soul, having given way to world-weary guilt, is simply taking a step toward compromising one’s ideals.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5—15.