Nearly every modern filmmaker is influenced in some capacity by the incredibly talented Alfred Hitchcock. Regardless of one's specialty, his influence on the thriller genre is absolutely massive. Writer/director Xavier Dolan has created quite the resume thus far, and continues to experiment with genre and tone in everything that he does. Tom at the Farm is no different. Based off of the play written by Michel Marc Bouchard, this is the first film that Dolan didn't write entirely on his own, allowing for even more outside influences to affect his artistic processes. Despite this, his signature continues to shine through. However, it remains far from his greatest work.
When Tom (Xavier Dolan) discovers that his boyfriend has died, he's in undeniable grief. He decides to drive to his lover's family farm, who he quickly learns has many skeletons in their closet. Little did Tom know, the family wasn't aware of their son's sexual orientation, leaving him in a game with his boyfriend's brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Little did he know, he's walking into a dangerous household that could hold a terrible fate.
With the majority of the film taking place within one or two rooms, it makes sense how this was inspired by a play. It had the potential to turn into an over-the-top drama with a whole lot of loud dialogue, but Dolan's screenplay and direction keeps it grounded, subtle, and often quiet. Much of the exposition is implied, rather than directly stated. He treats the audience as intelligent individuals who can figure out many of the dynamics on their own. However, some may find it to be a bit too drawn out. Tom at the Farm takes pride in the sexual tension that can be found in an abundance throughout the running time. Francis is a mysterious presence that has a lot more to him than meets the eye. Nearly every character has a few layers of complexity. While we know very little of their past, it feels more like a moment in time where everybody's true "self" comes to the surface.
The second act is where Tom at the Farm will either pull you further into the abyss, or leave you with overwhelming disappointment. One particular sub-plot doesn't quite fit the overall flow of the plot. Nevertheless, the film maintains a sense of tension that remains consistent throughout. There are some moments that come off as being slightly comedic, but rather than creating a clash in tones, it places the audience further into a world that is both dark, yet slightly fantastical. Tom finds himself under a spell that leaves him with a massive dilemma. The more that he learns about his boyfriend's family, the more intense the film becomes. The small town that the farm stands in has an undeniably strange atmosphere that continues to reveal secrets that will change his perception of the world forever. This is where the Hitchcock elements come into play, which are supported by an excellent score that elevates tension on all fronts.
Tom at the Farm has an anti-climatic conclusion that actually suits the film rather well. Even despite this, there's a lack of fulfillment when the credits begin to roll. Rather than feeling like the end, it feels like a beginning of sorts. Dolan frequently manipulates the audience into feeling a whirlwind of emotions that's intended to put us under a spell similar to the one that Tom finds himself caught in. Sometimes it's effective, and other times it feels forced. This can especially be found in the visual style that's filled with close-ups that feel more invasive than it does establish genuine tension. The writing and acting create enough of it without the visuals needing to force it upon viewers. Tom at the Farm is most successful when it employs more subtle strategies that involve eerie character dynamics.
Since this was initially based upon a play, it shouldn't be too surprising that the film relies very much on the performances. Xavier Dolan turns in a subtle, yet inspired portrayal of Tom. He's both genuine and grounded in a role that could have easily been overly-dramatized. Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Lise Roy also turn in worthwhile performances as Francis and Agathe, respectively. However, it's the chemistry between Dolan and Cardinal that carries the film through its lowest points. These sequences are eerie, yet incredibly sincere. They make a claustrophobic atmosphere feel even smaller, as they turn this farm into a place that incites both fear and intrigue.
While it has some great moments, Tom at the Farm is far from Xavier Dolan's best work. It's an interesting exercise in Hitchcockian cinema, but it isn't entirely successful. It occasionally feels contrived, especially as it tries to force tension that should flow naturally. The film is most effective in its more subtle endeavors, as it explores character in a way that is sexy, ominous, and often compelling. The ending is fitting, although it's sure to leave viewers feeling somewhat underwhelmed after the crescendo in storytelling. Tom at the Farm isn't a home run, but it's worth checking out for those who are interested in seeing an experimental style mixed with Hitchcockian cinema. Recommended.