Xavier Dolan‘s newest old film, Tom at the Farm, has been billed (in part by the 26 year old actor/director himself) as a psychological thriller. This is a genre that often veers into an ambiguous supernaturalism and/or uncanniness — the likes of The Shining, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and Repulsion are all marked by a enigmatic horror that pertains just as much to the the liminal space between sanity and insanity as that of life and death, real and unreal. In Tom at the Farm (adapted from the play by Michel Marc Bouchard), it seems that the mystery void underlying the narrative, haunting the protagonist’s every move, is the amalgam of social forces that have constructed the closet. (Yes, that’s referring to the same metaphysical space you saw, say, Ellen break free of in the famous “Puppy Episode” or David slowly tiptoe out of on Six Feet Under.)
Tom at the Farm follows a certain Tom (Dolan) to a certain farm (glad that we’ve gotten that out of the way). As far as superficial details go, Tom is a somewhat quintessentialized Quebecois gay urbanite — a bleached blond man who works at an advertising firm, with a flair for inoffensively alternative apparel. The farm to which Tom travels is full of less flatteringly quintessentialized Quebecois agrarians: bigoted, grammatically challenged, unworldly. The reason such a Tom would travel to such a farm is because it’s where his boyfriend, Guy is from. Guy died recently at the young age of 25, and the farm is where his funeral is to be held.
When Tom arrives, he meets both Agathe (Lise Roy), Guy’s mother, and Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his brother. He finds out Guy had never told his family of his existence — Francis pins him to a bed on his arrival and threateningly tells him not to speak a word of their relationship, which Francis intuited, to his mother. So begins a long game of mixed messaging: the unexplained parts (the gay parts) of Guy’s life have left a gaping hole in attendance at his funeral, and thus Francis relies on Tom to make his mother happy by being the one person to eulogize him. Thereafter, a strange wavering of desire, suppression and substitution occurs, with Tom conflating Francis for his lover and Francis asserting that he needs him, as though he were his brother.
But like a monstrous melange of the worst kind of homophobe, the worst kind of bullying big brother, and the worst kind of abusive lover, Francis convinces Tom to stay at the farm through a systemic series of beatings and professions of near-affection. All the while, Francis is building a fragile fortress around his mother’s ignorance of her deceased son’s sexuality, and Tom’s compliance soon seems a matter of life or death — or, at least, a matter of life or being brutalized in cornfields. Tom, seeing physical and vocal similarities in Francis to his just-passed boyfriend, is particularly prone to Stockholm Syndrome. With Francis and the unwilling help of one of his city-dwelling girlfriends (Evelyne Brochu), Tom helps construct lies for Agathe about his and Guy’s sexualities, forging the metaphysical walls of the “closet” that weakens and negates him.
As Dolan lets us in on the source of some of the formerly unexplained tension — the reason Guy escaped his family and the reason why even Francis’ small town reviles him — we’re led back to a particularly grotesque act of sexual policing. It’s an act that, as the film shows, was effective in silencing various peoples’ identities. Indeed, this is a psychological thriller in which the manifestation of mystery and cruelty is not some apparition, but rather a horror of an identity political order.
The film’s US release comes at a particularly interesting time of reevaluation and refocusing on issues of sexuality-based oppression: same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada for 10 years now, but obviously it’s a newfangled freedom in the States. The victory — an undeniably huge symbol insofar as leveling injustice went — was nonetheless the end of a battle that’s myopically concrete (over a rather abstract institution) in that it can be “won” or “lost” and has a definitive “end.” Now that it has been won, it’s had people such as the now-defunct Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson “step[ping] back for a moment and really think[ing] about who [he is] when [he’s] not Mr. Marriage.”
With the cause of “gay marriage” activism — always a problematically overpowering synecdoche for LGBT activism — in the States diminished in one fell swoop, the discourse within mainstream LGBT culture may pivot to the abstract factors of oppression. It may turn to abuses of personal freedom that can’t be summed up by the lifting of a stifling law, those that may exist rather on a familial or personal level, those that are the vestiges of centuries of widely accepted intolerance, those that instill a fear of being subjected to violence, and those that intersect with other antagonized groups.
The image above is evocative of the notion of vestigial historical prejudice. The blood streak that curls across and down Tom’s cheek — and the light wound he hereafter wears around his mouth for a good part of the film, comes from an altercation with Francis in a cornfield whose plants in Winter are “sharp as razors.” It foreshadows the revelation of a far more extreme previous act of violence the viewer doesn’t yet know about. (The following sentence contains a big spoiler: once, Francis tore the mouth of a man interested in his brother open on either side, all the way down to his throat, leaving him forever frowningly disfigured).
In scenes where Dolan runs — possibly for his life, possibly for his sanity, and pretty clearly to regain control of his identity — through cornfields away from his emotional and physical captor, the film looks like other good psychological thrillers. Sideways glances, intense closeups, and shadowy figures running in and out of the frame evoke a similar sense of dread as in other such films. But here, it’s not just Francis that’s chasing Tom, but the notion that certain places still contain the social and familial dynamics of a pursuing, haunting and enveloping “closet.”