Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I first saw Tom at the Farm last year at Reeling, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I was in the Windy City editing Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, and because I didn’t have to wake up at 6 AM and work 12-hour days like the rest of the crew, I actually made it out to the movie theater a few times. In retrospect, the three features I saw on the big screen during my trip – Tom, Adam Wingard’s The Guest, and David Fincher’s Gone Girl – formed an informal little triptych of lean, nasty genre exercises. They were also the best genre movies I saw last year, and maybe the best, period, since Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 Maniac remake. The Guest was a total blast, paying homage to everything without ever feeling like a direct rip-off of anything, with some of the cleanest, smartest set-piece choreography in recent memory. As with Fincher’s other recent work, Gone Girl felt like the creation of an evil, unfeeling robot – so deeply cynical that misanthropy itself became the main character. But, you know, to an effect this time, I think…. Dolan’s was the best of the bunch, and also the best movie in the under-thirty wunderkind’s ever-expanding oeuvre.
It was easy to hate Xavier Dolan’s first two movies, I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats. They felt straight out of film school, which means they were whiny and derivative, and for some reason they got into Cannes and were loved by people who I thought really ought to know better. There’s actually one scene in Heartbeats that’s pretty great, but you have to sit through lots of twentysomethings talking about their stupid feelings like it’s the end of the world, and endless rip-offs of In the Mood for Love, to get to it. I heard enough good things about his third feature, Laurence Anyways, that I thought I’d give it a shot, and I was excited about the prospect of a Xavier Dolan movie that didn’t involve me looking at his face the entire time. I was surprised to find myself really taken with it. And like a few other instances where I’ve done a 180 on a director (like when Mister Lonely was my #1 of 2007 after years of loathing everything by Harmony Korine), Laurence had all the signs of Dolan’s developing signature, but clarified and crystallized for the first time. I was pleasantly optimistic for what he did next. Then this happened.
I no longer remember what happened in the dream Xavier Dolan movie I saw, but I do remember watching the entire movie in the dream and liking it to the point that it made me jealous. So, I kinda had to see Tom at the Farm. I don’t put a lot of stake in messages or hidden meanings of dreams, but I will say that at the end of that screening, I was a believer. If there was a name for Xavier Dolan fans, like Beliebers, Swifties, or KatyCats, I’d be one of those. X-claimers? Dolanites?
Tom at the Farm tells the story of (duh) Tom (Dolan, bleached-blonde and back in front of the camera!), who visits the family of his recently deceased boyfriend in order to attend the funeral. The deceased’s family – his mother and brother – live on a (double duh) farm, which isolates the characters and turns their increasingly icky, interdependent dynamic into ideal fodder for a narratively sparse, but emotionally dense, psychosexual thriller. I probably shouldn’t say too much about the film, as one of Tom’s real joys is seeing which character seems the craziest in any given scene. Like other Dolan films, it’s invested deeply in its own movie-ness. The string-driven score plays like Bernard Herrmann on speed, ever-present and turned up to 11. A Steadicam constantly tracks Tom as he moves in and out of spaces. At key moments, the aspect ratio itself closes in around the characters, constricting from 1.85 into a paper-thin parody of CinemaScope. (The well-timed, wink-wink ratio shift is one of Dolan’s signature moves, the natural product of a generation of cinephiles whose introduction to the world of movies was on their TV screen.) And, like other Dolan films, Tom at the Farm wears its heart abrasively on its sleeve, taking all of its characters’ emotions – no matter how petty – deeply, deeply seriously.
Tom at the Farm succeeds not in spite of its genre construct, but because heightened emotions and cinematic indulgence are what all great genre movies are made of. Can someone get this kid and Jason Blum in a room together? Tom’s follow-up, Mommy, which has already come and gone in U.S. theaters, returned the director to the pop-song-driven melodrama territory of Laurence Anyways. I really hope Tom wasn’t a one-off exercise, and that there are more audacious thrillers from Dolan coming our way. Either way, he’s got me. When the next Xavier Dolan movie comes out, you’ll know where to find me opening weekend – at the movie theater, with all the other X-claimers.