TOM AT THE FARM directed by Xavier Dolan, written by Dolan and Michel Marc Bouchard, with Dolan and Pierre-Yves Cardinal. An eOne release. 103 minutes. Opens Friday (May 30). For venues and times, see listings.
I'm in a hotel suite during the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, and Xavier Dolan, a filmmaker three years my junior, is laying out the rudiments of dramatic structure for me as if I've never sat through a Grade 9 English class.
It's all fairly basic, but for Dolan, a prolific young Canadian filmmaker who has netted a wunderkind rep fucking around with the narrative and visual grammar of filmmaking, it seems very exciting. Dolan's latest, the rural thriller Tom At The Farm, may be his most straight-ahead movie to date. But its restraint is exhilarating in its own way, like watching Jackson Pollack paint a straight line.
"It's a Syd Field script," says Dolan of the screenplay, a reference to the author of The Screenwriter's Workbook. "I'm ashamed, but it is. The aim was to follow rules."
After arriving in rural Quebec following the death of his lover, Tom (Dolan) becomes weirdly intoxicated with farm life and enters into a pseudo-sexual relationship with his partner's macho, bullying older brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Rising action, tension, climax and resolution: it's all there, a movie built on a boilerplate.
Following his lavish, expressionistic epic Laurence Anyways, Dolan wanted to do something different. After seeing a staging of Michel Marc Bouchard's play Tom At The Farm, he found his inspiration.
"After Laurence Anyways, I needed a break from style," he says. "I needed a break from love stories. For me, this film was a rupture in terms of tone, genre, style, approach. Everything was different. I didn't want to scale back or scale down, but just fucking simplify."
Neverthless, the film still makes a point of mucking about with genre. Dolan calls it a psychological thriller, but it's also reminiscent of backwoods horror films in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre mould - where old abandoned houses hide all kinds of family secrets. It's as much about country life as it is about metropolitan assumptions that rural life is dirty and gritty, something Dolan feels uniquely qualified to comment on.
"I was brought up in the suburbs and the country, half and half," says Dolan. "So I know the contempt that comes from both ends. Toward the city: ‘Oh, it's just a bunch of fags who don't want to step in the mud with their boots' or whatever. And in the city people think the country just has a bunch of dumb farmers who will fuck you in the ass and fuck you up."