The first time we see the titular character of Tom at the Farm, he is driving through the corn fields of rural Quebec. He is played by Xavier Dolan, back in front of the camera after taking a break from acting in the insufferably pompous Laurence Anyways. We know from the music that blasts in his car and his clothes that he doesn’t belong to the farm in any way except for a hairdo that seems like a miniature corn field on his head. This opening is promising because, while carefully curated, it seems rather less stylistically assaultive than one expects from a Dolan-directed film, even though it follows immediately from a familiarly designed scene in which he romantically scribes a letter of eulogy with ink on a tissue paper.
Tom is at the farm to attend the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume, but when he arrives at the residence cheekily numbered 69, he finds the massive house and the surrounding properties all empty but for the cattle. Suspense seeps in and the scene continues for a few minutes before we find him asleep at the kitchen table with an eerily still woman staring at him. This sets the tone for the underlying, creepy tension in what is to come next, though the word ‘tone’ is used very generously here.
Dolan the director is, thankfully, in more restrained mode here. This is less a work of a zealous young director eager to imitate the filmmakers who inspire him than the work of a man whose voice is evolving into a personal one. Although the thematic and formal influence of films like Hitchcock’s Psycho is immediately evident, Tom at the Farm is largely free of stylistic affectations and self-indulgences that hindered most of his work previously. Dolan the actor is giving his best performance to date as well. The more he is tormented by Francis, Guillaume’s homophobic brother, and the farm’s daunting environment, the more conflicted he becomes in his attraction to the mystery of the place.
Yet, even though he has adapted the screenplay from pre-existing material this time around – from co-writer Michel Marc Bouchard’s play – Tom maintains the most significant, and unfortunate, trait of Dolan’s previous features: paper thin characterization. Here, he is proving himself adept at building suspense, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as Francis alternates between a suave host and a brutal prisoner and unnerves both Tom and the audience in equal measure. But when all is said and done, little is left to mull over.
Disguised under the veil of mystery, the screenplay presumes than leaving the audience with only nebulous justifications for its character’s intentions is enough. What the relationship between Francis and Guillaume and their mother comprised is never explored, neither is the intriguing notion that the homophobic Francis might, perhaps, be conflicted about his own sexuality. Is the mother simply in a state of grief or is there a history of abuse between her and Francis? Tom is the most fully formed character of the three, but not much else can be gleaned from him but for the fact that the memory of his boyfriend draws him to the farm and its residents.
The deft handling of the one chilling scene after another barely conceals the hollow core of the film. Suspense is self-contained within every sequence but the overall structure lacks tonal coherence. This is lamentable because it happens despite calculated plot progressions that are meant to neatly bring everything together with a bow on top. (The introduction of Sarah, Guillaume’s imaginary girlfriend, serves only to facilitate the final revelation for Tom, which is itself problematic, but these developments almost become ludicrous when Tom meets the unlikely victim of the said revelation by accident.)
And, yet, despite such problems, Tom at the Farm is Dolan’s most exciting work to date, if not his best – that honor still belongs to his second film, the hopelessly romantic Les amours imaginaires. This is partly because we can see his artistic progress unravel on the screen, as he leaves his familiar ’emotional tour de force’ stories of conflicted relationships, and experiments with something new; and partly because he proves to be at least as skilled in cooking up suspense as he was in staging an elaborate, brightly colored dance sequence. One only wishes he could chance upon a meatier screenplay.