The secret shame of talent is that it’s surprisingly plentiful. Secret and shameful because talent, inherent gifts, raw ability, plays such a central role in too many social, political, economic, even mythological narratives in our society. Too much is predicated on talent being a rare and valuable thing for its commonplace banality to surface. The gulf between talent and greatness is vast indeed; the gulf tween talent and consistent, intentional greatness vaster still. Acknowledging, of course, that talent is a necessary though not sufficient input to special form of greatness, we can name some others; and here I want to call attention to discipline. Joseph Heller once said:
I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.
It’s as succinct a summary as one could hope for of both the power and the inherent limitations of talent without discipline. It’s also a little irony of sorts, since Tom, the protagonist of Tom at the Farm, is in advertising himself. Where Tom at the Farm fails is precisely the point where real talent goes unmatched by commensurate focus. To butcher physics beyond recognition, it’s energy unconverted to work, dissipated into the ground.
Tom is directed by Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, and Tom is played by Xavier Dolan, and we meet him arriving at the farm, a desolate place in an unromantic winter in some nameless rural corner of French Canada. The farm, it turns out, is where his boyfriend originated; his boyfriend is dead; his boyfriend’s mother (Lise Roy) knows nothing about him; and his boyfriend’s brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is…interesting. Tensions quickly bubble, both sexual and violent, and then… well, we can’t spoil the suspense, now can we?
There is a ton to like about Tom at the Farm. The performances are all terrific, especially Cardinal, whose work here should make him famous. The cinematography is inventive, blending styles, making canny use of lighting, and even hopping between aspect ratios. Gabriel Yared’s score is a master homage to Bernard Herrmann, not just in form but in its consistent evocation of physical, almost sweaty menace. At its best moments, Tom at the Farm crackles.
Yet Tom at the Farm is not the sum of its best moments. Characterization is… inconsistent. So is plotting: things left vague should be be clarified and vice-versa. The film hops from one style to another, one minute Kubrick, another Van Sant, another Greengrass, and so on. But rather than selecting elements consistently to blend into a fused whole, melding style with substance, form with function, every scene, every moment seems the product of its own particular inspiration without any thought for broader rhythm or consistent meaning. The film is chock-loaded with interesting themes that go underexplored and threads that dangle because it doesn’t have a clear idea of where it’s going or why; Dolan isn’t willing to sacrifice compelling moments, iconic shots, or intriguing twists for the sake of thoroughly committing to a single idea of what the movie should be. It would be easy to criticize Dolan for making something so clearly inspired by Highsmith, golden age noir, and most of all Hitchcock; but it would be correct to criticize Dolan for being insufficiently reverent to his ideological and stylistic bedrock, and to apply a consistent schema for bringing their ideas and methods into the 21st century, rather than simply toss a reference/homage into a satisfying but ultimately unexceptional burgoo.
This isn’t to say that Tom at the Farm is bad; instead, just to say that that it’s four-star ingredients served up by a talented chef in a three-star dish. Far be it from me to advise someone three years my junior who already won the Jury Prize at Cannes, but it’s nothing I wouldn’t say to any artist, aspiring or established, successful or struggling. A wealth of great ideas is an obvious blessing masking a deeper burden. The responsibility for working, grinding away at those ideas until only the very best remain, precisely constructed to fit a certain idea. Great artists are architects.