There’s a certain tingle that sets in when you realize that a thriller is naturalistic enough not to rely on thriller tricks. It means that you may be denied some of the knee-jerk pleasures audiences have come to expect — the jump scares and violent climaxes. The tradeoff is that it’s a lot easier to place yourself in the main characters’ shoes, to imagine what they’re going through as something that might actually be happening. And that, ironically, just ups the thriller juice.
“Blow the Man Down,” directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy (it’s their first feature), is a drama of murder, sex, and small-town secrets set in Easter Cove, a fishing village in Maine that brings to mind the windswept coastal town of “Manchester by the Sea” — in fact, the place is so tiny and barren and gnarled it makes Manchester by the Sea look like Rome. Cole and Krudy are experts at low-keying the atmosphere: the dank tavern with zero decor that always has about four people in it, the roads with no street lights, the creaky houses with their ancient wallpaper and half-full whiskey bottles, the docks and boats that start to look sinister when the sun goes down. The filmmakers light and shoot this stuff like something out of a John Cassavetes film (that’s the right choice), but it’s not just the settings that are dingy and weather-beaten. So is the crime.
Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Pris (Sophie Lowe) Connolly are sisters who have been taking care of their ailing mother for a year. On the day of her funeral, Mary Beth, the younger of the two (she’s about 18), learns the grim news that the mother, who owned and ran a local fish store, has left them with nothing but debt. In that lonely bar, drowning her sorrows, Mary Beth meets the kind of night-world creep (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who, in a town of no options, starts to look sexy.
Many drinks, a few snorts of coke, and one collision with a local landmark road sign later, she discovers that he has traces of blood and what looks like human hair in his trunk. All she wants is to run away, but when she’s trapped near his isolated home, she does the next best thing: charges out of the dark with a harpoon and stabs him, fatally, in the neck.
It’s not quite self-defense (though maybe it is), and it’s not quite murder (though maybe it is). But what it feels like, to Mary Beth and her sister, is something that’s got to be swept under the rug. With the aid of a paring knife from the fish shop, they stuff his body into an ice chest, then dump it on the ocean rocks. A day or two later, they learn from the police that a body has washed up on shore. The thing is, it’s a different body.
“Blow the Man Down” may remind you, for a while, of “Blood Simple,” but Cole and Krudy have their own acerbic social eye. They frame the movie with a chorus of fisherman singing sea shanties (the lyrics of which, in an obliquely witty way, apply to whatever’s happening), and they sketch in a close-knit and rather snappish Irish-American community that’s a lot more sinful than it looks. They introduce a wild-card character: Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale), a gimlet-eyed businesswoman who presides over a remote bed-and-breakfast called the Ocean View. Except that the place is a brothel. The other body that washed ashore was one of the girls who worked there, and though she had track marks in her arm, her real crime was to dare and cross Enid.
The great Margo Martindale plays this aging madam with relish, full of wiles and smiles and hard-won scorn. It doesn’t take long for us to piece together the connections in what we’ve seen. The whole way a “realistic” crime drama like “Blow the Man Down” works is that it’s not so much about the twists, it’s about the world they reveal — in this case, an organized depravity rooted in old-world New England mores. The women of this community, played with a kind of soul-freezing puritan jauntiness by Annette O’Toole, June Squibb, and Marceline Hugot, have known each other for decades, and they comprise a small-town matriarchy: Thornton Wilder meets “Suspiria.” Enid is part of their clan, and the connection among them is rooted in something that feels sinister but real.
“Blow the Man Down” has a few contrivances, like the scene where Enid and Mary Beth just happen to be at the same bar, and at that very moment Mary Beth lays down a telltale (stolen) bill with Ben Franklin on it. The movie sets up a clean-cut junior local police officer, played by Will Brittain, as an ace investigator who cuts through the lies people tell him, but he doesn’t bring the case to the kind of closure we expect. Yet Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe invest the embattled but loyal Connolly sisters with a desperate resonance, and the movie is clever enough to hold you, even when you wish it had taken the extra step and gone full Patricia Highsmith. I’d love to see Cole and Krudy tackle a Highsmith novel next — they’ve got a gift for atmosphere, and for the dark impulses of ordinary folks, that could leave you chilled.