Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s psycho-sexual thriller “Tom at the Farm” is an exercise in delayed gratification. Technically his fourth feature, preceding the visually bold and expressive “Mommy” (which was one of this writer’s top films of 2014), and the film melds Dolan’s trademark artistic vigor with a moody, Hitchcockian style he’s never attempted before. And yet fans of Dolan’s work will no doubt appreciate that his core themes continue to resonate throughout, even if others may find the whole thing too strange to fully grasp.
The multi-talented Dolan writes, directs, and stars as gay ad exec Tom, who arrives at the titular farm for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. From the moment he arrives at the empty farm it’s a foreboding, unwelcoming place, and while not specifically stated it seems especially dangerous for someone like Tom. As captured by Dolan, the Canadian countryside is a rugged, harsh place that would chew up the effeminate, quiet Tom. Eventually he encounters his ex’s maddeningly clueless mother, Agathe (Lisa Roye), who has no idea her son was gay. However, Guillaume’s menacing brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) was well aware, and has been keeping his mother in the dark. Under the constant threat of violence he forces Tom to uphold the lie, even going so far as to invent a girlfriend for Guillaume, who Agathe takes perverse pleasure in hating and being obsessed with.
What unfolds is a twisted sadomasochistic bond that forms between Frances and Tom, with secrets emerging about both that shift our perspective on them. Tom comes across as someone desperate for connection; so needy of acceptance that he’s willing to endure physical and emotional torment. While Frances blocks his attempts to leave at nearly every turn, Tom has plenty of other opportunities to escape and yet always finds a reason to stick around. Dolan builds the tension between the two by teasing something more than a twisted heterosexual relationship. Frances has demons on top of demons, with a current of self-loathing inflaming his frequent violent outbursts.
The sexually-charged undercurrent will invite many comparisons to the works of Patricia Highsmith, while the deliberately darkening mood invokes Hitchcock, but rest assured this is a Dolan film all the way. That extends to his shifting aspect ratios (previously seen in Mommy), and commentary on motherhood. Dolan has spent multiple films working through his mommy issues and this time he’s feeling violently protective. Once again he gets strong performances from his cast, especially from the intimidating Cardinal, and Dolan gives Tom the necessary vulnerability. But we never learn much about any of the characters beyond their bizarre behavior. An explanation for what is going or, or at least some suggestion whether everyone is completely insane, is never forthcoming, making for a payoff that fails to reward our anticipation.