Made in 2013, but, amazingly, not receiving U.S. distribution until this month, Tom at the Farm is the fourth film by Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who made his first film at age 20 (I Killed My Mother) and was 23 when he co-scripted, directed and starred in this dark Hitchcockian thriller.
Dolan’s Tom is a Montreal advertising executive who is grieving for his lover, Guillaume, whom he’s just lost in an unspecified accident. Arriving at the family’s farm to attend the funeral, he meets Guy’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), who doesn’t know who Tom is and has no idea her son was gay. His sadistic, lunkheaded brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) knows the whole story, however, and has been keeping Agathe blissfully ignorant. He warns Tom under threat of violence that he must play it straight, deliver a nice eulogy at the funeral and then get out of their lives.
But Tom can’t bring himself to read the personal words he’d written and a song is played instead, infuriating Francis, who wants only to please his mother. At the wake, while Tom is in the restroom, he barges into the stall and orders Tom to return to their house and make it up to Agathe by helping to fabricate a story about Guy’s fictional girlfriend, Sarah, and her reason for not coming.
Tom sees his chance to escape and drives away, but something makes him turn around and go back to the farm. Thus the stage is set for a psychosexual drama whose characters feed off of each other in various disturbing ways, with Tom particularly succumbing to a profound case of Stockholm Syndrome.
There’s certainly more than a few allusions to the Master of Suspense here, all smartly integrated. Agathe can easily be seen as Psycho’s Mother Bates with her domination of Francis, who in turn talks to Tom about having to “put her away.” There’s a false identity in the case of Sarah (Evelyne Brochu), who turns out to be a real person but hardly the love of Guy’s life. Shattering secrets are revealed, and it’s all carried along by Gabriel Yared’s string-driven score, so reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann. And Dolan, with his scraggly dyed locks, has cast himself as his “Hitchcock blonde.”
Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the film has been liberated from its theatrical roots with a simultaneously rich and forbidding country setting, well-captured by André Turpin’s camera, but it remains a gripping three-person drama whose themes are as intriguing as they are shocking. During an evening of drinking, when Francis suddenly grabs Tom by the throat, the younger man asks, “Is that all you got?”, begging to be strangled harder. But then there’s the scene, beautifully lensed in a dusky barn, when the boys spontaneously perform an almost-romantic tango, and Tom practically swoons when Francis dips him.
Ultimately, it’s the tango that Dolan performs with the material — alternating scenes of blistering psychological drama with sequences of suspense — that makes Tom at the Farm so intriguing.