Lusciously coiffed Quebecois prodigy Xavier Dolan overreached with last year’s “Laurence Anyways,” a three-hour transgender saga that overindulged his admittedly striking stylistic affectations. Perhaps even he agreed, since “Tom at the Farm,” the 24-year-old hyphenate’s delicious fourth feature — and first excursion into genre terrain — is a trimmer, tarter effort all round. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also his first collaboration with another writer. A kinky queer noir detailing the dangers awaiting a gay Montreal hipster (Dolan) as he journeys to the homophobic heartland for his lover’s funeral, it’s an improbably exciting match of knife-edge storytelling and a florid vintage aesthetic best represented by Gabriel Yared’s glorious orchestral score. Dolan’s most accomplished and enjoyable work to date, it’s also his most commercially viable.
Opening with a swooning French-language rendition of Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind” and closing with Rufus Wainwright’s anguished escape anthem “Going to a Town,” the film could as easily have cribbed a lyric from Blur’s “Coffee & TV”: “Do you go to the country / It isn’t very far / There’re people there who will hurt you / Because of who you are.” That’s exactly what Tom (a bottle-blond Dolan) learns when he heads to Quebec’s rural flatlands to bury his 25-year-old lover, Guillaume.
That involves accepting the hospitality of the dead man’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), an apparent salt-of-the-earth type living on her late husband’s isolated dairy farm with Guillaume’s handsome, volatile older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Agathe is still blind to her younger son’s sexuality, having bought his cover story about a girlfriend in Montreal, though she’s irked that said g.f. has skipped the funeral, sending this somewhat fey young man in her place. Francis has known the truth all along, however, and sets immediately about making the townie feel as unwelcome as possible. That’s putting it coyly: Francis assaults Tom both in bed and in a toilet cubicle, threatening him with more considerably more grievous harm if he reveals the true nature of his relationship with Guillaume.
After Tom obtusely reneges on his first opportunity to escape by car, however, the film shifts intriguingly into a defiantly irrational mode of reality and game playing. Increasingly turned on by his vicious tormentor, who in turn interrupts his brutish bullying with isolated moments of brazen flirtatiousness, Tom tacitly acquiesces to stay on at the farm, wearing his lover’s clothes, carrying out pastoral chores and accepting Francis’ physical abuse. By the time the pair are performing a sensual tango in a honey-lit barn, viewers might think the film has morphed into a warped fantasy perspective — a viewpoint that could as easily be attributed to either man. But when Sara (Evelyne Brochu), both a friend of Tom’s and Guillaume’s regular beard, arrives belatedly on the scene, the situation careers into even more heated realms of conflict.
Though the film is based on a stage play by Michel-Marc Bouchard (who shares screenwriting credit with Dolan), there’s more than a hint of Patricia Highsmith to this heady tale of elastically assumed identities and erotically charged male rivalry; it hardly seems accidental that Dolan’s increasingly unknowable protagonist shares a Christian name with Highsmith’s devious antihero, Tom Ripley. (Though still not a natural screen actor, Dolan has hit upon an ideally tailored role for his poseur-ish charisma and lacquered good looks.) Viewers will either go with the film’s gradual dramatic divorce from accountable human behaviour — a move that coincides with its plummeting emotional temperature — and borderline-silly narrative switchbacks, or they won’t, but the helmer seems in cool command of the tone throughout.
It’s a short leap, of course, from Highsmith to Hitchcock — not that “Tom at the Farm” has anything in common with “Strangers on a Train,” barring the obvious homoerotic ancestry. Though he shows an unexpected knack in the film’s opening and closing stages for razor-cut suspense, Dolan fosters the Hitch connection mainly through the lush strings of Yared’s almost ever-present score, one so uncannily in thrall to Bernard Herrmann that viewers familiar with Dolan’s previous output — hitherto reliant on tastefully curated jukebox soundtracks — may initially assume he’s sampling extracts from lesser-known film scores from the Golden Age of noir. So overwhelming and insistent as to constitute a narrative voice in itself, Yared’s work constitutes a significant formal risk, but its sweeping intricacy stands in sufficiently stark contrast to the film’s otherwise contempo-chic construction to make it a thrilling one.
Meanwhile, as even Dolan’s detractors have come to expect from his work, the film looks as gorgeous as it sounds, with Andre Turpin’s rich, crisply composed lensing effectively playing the landscape’s bleak, affectless minimalism against its deep autumnal coloring. Working, as ever, as his own costume designer, Dolan makes even mud-splattered workwear look a tiny bit fabulous.