Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Tom at the Farm"

Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 105 minutes

A tightly wound story of lust, desire, and control, Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm is the young Quebecois director's most accomplished film to date. Abandoning most of the film student tendencies of his previous features, the prolific artist's latest is a dive off the deep end into florid modern noir. Though Dolan still has plenty of room to grow, and it shows, his latest is a gay-themed, Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller that holds some truly magnificent pieces of acting and atmospheric tension.

As the film opens, Tom (Dolan) is bidding farewell to his boyfriend Guillaume, who has passed away in a tragic accident. Yet soon afterwards he's forced to conceal his feelings. Tom journeys to Guillaume's family's farm for the funeral. The family - mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) - remain unaware of Guillaume's sexual orientation. Under pressure from the vaguely menacing Francis, Tom continues to prop up the lie, and finds himself slowly sucked into life at the farm. 

Dolan's first steps here are his clumsiest. Despite the moody photography, early scenes come front-loaded with Gabriel Yared's lush, bombastic score. As Tom meanders around the empty farm for the first time and Yared's strings flood the screen, it's tempting to write the whole thing off. Moments like these show Dolan struggling to acclimate to the genre trappings he so clearly wants to engage with (and indulge in).

Yet once the perfunctory first conversations are out of the way, Tom at the Farm starts to come alive with a Polanski-like attention to atmosphere. The style and content stop clashing, and come together to paint a fog-shrouded portrait of intimate, character-driven suspense and sexual tension. Yared's score, such an obnoxious distraction at the start, suddenly becomes wholly engrossing, even as it occaisionally threatens to recklessly upstage the drama. 

Beneath Dolan's typical attention to style, however, he's also put together a tight ensemble of strong performances. The writer/director/star likely won't win new converts with his acting style (his biggest change is that he's decked out with a heinous hairdo), yet his technique lends itself well to the story and character. That said, none of it would work half as well without the stellar turns from Roy and Cardinal, especially the latter. 

Roy's Agathe starts as a doddering and oblivious old lady, but through Dolan's script, the actress is able to peel back the layers and reveal surprising and unsettling facets. Best in show honors easily go to Cardinal as the hulking, gruff and controlling Francis. Whether simply hovering over Tom or trapping him in sinister emotional games, the actor is a force to be reckoned with. Both of these roles could have been frustratingly one-note, and it's exhilarating to watch Dolan and his cast pay such attention to them. Even though Dolan's atmosphere is purposefully over the top, the cast keep enough buried so that their emotional explosions never slide into hysteria. 

But after so much excellent material throughout the majority of the film, Dolan's ending come off as a bit of a whiff. There's hints at a payoff of sorts, but nothing truly materializes. It's enough make the whole film seem like less than the sum of its parts, and it leaves you wanting more in the wrong ways. Tom at the Farm's beginning and ending are the albatross around its metaphorical neck. After recovering so beautifully from its clumsy opening, having the finale arrive with so little impact, as though Dolan's hyperactive mind needed to wrap things on to move onto his next project (he's currently writing his fifth film). Yet even if, upon reflection, the film isn't quite the success it could have been, the excellence that defines the bulk of the duration is too good to ignore.

Grade: B/B+

1 comment:

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