Terror can come from the most unusual places. Blessed not to be confronted on a daily basis by zombies or aliens, we find our fears manifested instead in less ghoulish ways: the anxiety of losing those closest to us, the nagging worry that little that we do will matter in the end. Similarly benign but not-inconsiderable terrors visit the titular hero of Tom at the Farm, who merely wants to visit the family of his dead lover. But a trip to establish connection results in something far more sinister. By the time he (and the audience) realizes he’s in a psychological horror movie, it’s too late.
The film comes from Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who previously made I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways. Do a Google search for Dolan’s name alongside “enfant terrible” and you’ll find plenty of matches. Not yet 26, he has established a reputation for being an audacious, showy director who likes to shoot his mouth off in interviews. (Here’s what he said about the romantic drama Blue Valentine: “I thought it was absolutely phony and absolutely perfect in every detail. Michelle Williams is a revelation, beside Ryan Gosling who is just showing off, because he’s going to be the next intellectual hottie, isn’t he? I just don’t buy it.”) And he’s already a favorite of Cannes: His most recent effort, 2014’s Mommy, was his fourth film to screen at the festival, winning the jury prize.
Dolan stars in Tom at the Farm as Tom, who drives out to the country to meet the mother of his dead boyfriend Guillaume. The ominous score from Gabriel Yared, however, sets the tone: This will not be a movie of sad recollections and tearful grieving but, rather, a twisty, dark little drama. Arriving at the family home, Tom discovers that Guillaume’s mom, Agathe (Lise Roy), has no idea who he is—or even that her son was gay. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though, with the home’s other resident, Guillaume’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Without much explanation, Francis proceeds to torment the younger Tom, coercing him into helping out on the farm, even tempting him sexually, although it’s not quite clear whether this intimidating bully is actually gay.
Tom could probably make a run for it if he so chose, but one of the perverse pleasures of Tom at the Farm is that the motivations behind the characters’ actions are almost always oblique—and yet we seem to understand them, anyway. Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan, Tom at the Farm exists in that narrow strip between reality and surrealism where individuals don’t need to behave logically; they only have to be true to some sort of unknowable internal compass. Questions of “relatability” and “motivation” are irrelevant: All that matters is that we feel confident that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.
That would, indeed, be Dolan, who seems pleased with the extended mind game he plays on the audience. Lightly recalling other head-scratching, absorbing puzzles of human interaction like Dogtooth, Tom at the Farm is incredibly tense but also oddly playful, the exuberance coming from the inventiveness of the execution. As an actor, there’s something pleasingly unformed about Dolan. Reminiscent of the boyish, troubled beauty of a young Heath Ledger, Dolan plays Tom as a heartsick man-child with more than a little recklessness inside him. It couldn’t be described as a technically polished performance, but that’s not what’s required: Both intrigued and alarmed by the welcome waiting for him at the family farm, Tom seems to be perpetually sleepwalking, his inner misery augmented by the strangeness around him.
Such a description of Tom at the Farm might lead some to conclude that Dolan will merely be doling out self-consciously odd antics for shock value. That wouldn’t be accurate: Dolan is actually after something slyer and more emotional, examining how grief and sexual urges can wrap around one another, fear and desire melding together. (And this is to say nothing of how funny Tom at the Farm can be, especially when Tom recruits a friend, played by Evelyne Brochu, to come to the farm and pretend to be his girlfriend so as not to alarm Guillaume’s mother.) Cheeky but also subtly tense, the movie builds to an ending that doesn’t quite resolve what came before. Instead, it seems to release the characters from this temporary hell—only so that they can continue to live out the rest of their lives in their own personal ones.
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writers: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard (screenplay); Michel Marc Bouchard (play)
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Beirut International Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.