It's cavernous. Yep, that's the best way to describe this ghost town of a house the minute Tom at the Farm's titular mourner sets foot inside. Tom, an advertising copywriter from Montreal, drags his straw-haired, hiply attired self inside his empty home in the middle of nowhere and takes a look around. How did a city slicker like him wind up in the middle of nowhere? Oh, that's right. Guillaume's dead. Gone. Bid au revoir. But what truly feels like a grave is this house where he grew up.
We know Tom's boyfriend has kicked the bucket because just before he shows up at the Longchamp farm, we witness Blondie churning out an eulogy on paper towels. Scribbling the grey jumble inside his head onto the absorbent sheets with a blue magic marker as we listen to Kathleen Fortin belt out a French-language cover of “The Windmills of Your Mind.” You get the picture: Jittery camerawork conveys this high-maintenance guy's wallow in the pit of despair. We want to reach out across the screen, tell Tom to take a breather, that the pain will eventually subside.
But writer-director Xavier Dolan, the French Canadian wunderkind behind I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and, more recently, the tour-de-force gem Mommy, doesn't care for our sympathy. You don't so much warm up to Tom at the Farm as it gradually warms up to you, and even then, you're constantly on edge that it'll turn on you, like a cat that allows you to pet it before baring its claws. This psychological thriller with echoes of Hitchcock, Chabrol, Ozon and Dolan's own trademark quirks is the cinematic equivalent of that longtime friend that alienates everyone else around you but you still appreciate 'cause (s)he's smart, empathetic and occasionally fun, if you look beyond the standoffish surface.
Dolan doesn't make it easy for the viewer to keep that last part in mind when you're seeing Tom at the Farm. What's the issue? In a word, Francis. It doesn't take long for Tom, played by Dolan, to realize Guillaume's mom Agathe (Lise Roy) has no idea who he is or what he's doing inside her home. But Francis knows. The loose-cannon older brother of the deceased, nicely played by the handsome Pierre-Yves Cardinal, sneaks up to Tom while he's sleeping, telling him how it's gonna go: Tommy will pretend Guillaume had a girlfriend back in Montreal. At Guillaume's service, Tommy will recite some pretty words, and then he'll be on his way.
Suffice it to say, things don't go quite as planned, and an increasingly unstable Francis tells Tom to stay behind for … a while. Or else he's going to become upset. Oops! Too late. It's disturbing to see Francis, at once magnetic and dangerous, sizing up his prey. The fact that Tom's tormentor is straight becomes less and less relevant as this pas de deux simmers, jolting us with bursts of physical violence, then seducing us with mind games in which the sexual tension nearly reaches a fever pitch, all of it set to Oscar winner Gabriel Yared's Herrmanesque music score. A scene where Tom and Francis casually begin dancing the tango in an empty barn, which would feel right at home in, say, an Almodóvar potboiler, fits right into Dolan's off-kilter genre riffing.
What sets Tom at the Farm apart from the rest of Dolan's work is that, for the first time, he's working from material that's not his own. In this case, he's adapting a play by Michel Marc Bouchard. (They are both credited with the film's screenplay.) The distance between Dolan and the source material works in the movie's favor, and the shrill histrionics that tend to hamper his more personal work are here tempered by formal rigor. For instance, when Dolan switches aspect ratios during a tense sequence where Tom is trying to outrun Francis in a cornfield, it never feels distracting because the stylistic flourish feels of a piece with the rest of the film's fabric.
Tom at the Farm is atmospheric, ill-humored and coarse. It means it chafe and unsettle, and we emerge from the darkened theater feeling more than a little manhandled. And yet, there's a sneaky, darkly eccentric appeal to the darn thing. After its 2013 festival premieres in Venice and Toronto as well as a local screening during last year's Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, it's finally bothered to show up in commercial release to grant us an audience. It's worth the wait. Just don't expect a hug.
Tom at the Farm is now showing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.