When his boyfriend suddenly passes away, a young advertising copywriter called Tom (played by writer/director Xavier Dolan himself) visits the country to attend the funeral as well as to pay respects to his late partner’s mother. He is shocked to discover that the grieving mother Agathe (Lise Roy) doesn’t know who he is or more importantly what his relationship was to her son. Tom is then approached by the deceased’s overbearing brother Francis (Pierre Yves-Cardinal) who sets out the rules for a twisted game in which he forces Tom to stay and help around the farm in order not to upset his mother.
Dolan, whose previous directorial efforts include the likes of I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, returns with a film that squeezes every ounce of tension it can out of its quietly antagonistic situation. It starts off as a subdued, almost tranquil drama about the loss of a loved one and the proper etiquette one should conform to when death occurs but slowly and skilfully morphs into a nerve-shredding close-quarters thriller, all of which is presented with a hazy, dreamlike colour palette of purples and yellows that belies its subtly assaultive nature.
Shades of Hitchcock are evident throughout this gleefully playful little thriller, not least in its high-pitched, frenzied musical score. And much like a lot of the Master of Suspense’s work, you have to give yourself over to the ridiculousness of the situation to enjoy the thrills and spills it has to offer. As Francis becomes more and more controlling and weirdly protective of Tom – who is essentially his pet as well as an antidote to the boredom of running his family farm – so, too, does sinister sexual undertones grow. It never quite goes the full way with that aspect but that idea of threat, and more specifically sexual threat, is always bubbling away underneath the surface and around every corner.
It’s undoubtedly a mischievous film and, like I said, you have to just go along with it but it’s in this tricky, playful nature that the film is ultimately an enjoyable thrill ride as much as it is a knuckle-chewing exercise in tension, as well as an effective exploration of captivity and power struggles. Though somewhat overplayed in its stylistic approach to telling the story – some unnecessary slow-mo sometimes gets in the way, for example – Dolan’s latest film is nevertheless a taut thriller with superb performances, one that takes great pleasure in sticking the proverbial knife into its audience and slowly twisting it until the tension becomes almost unbearable.
Tom at the Farm is released in UK cinemas on April 4th.