Christopher Machell Toronto

Toronto 2019: Blow the Man Down review

★★★★★

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s debut feature is a haunting tale of buried secrets, sea shanties and fracturing communities. Set among the bleak shacks and sketchy bed and breakfasts of a Maine fishing village, Blow the Man Down signals the arrival of Cole and Krudy as two of the most exciting new voices in cinema.

Some would have it that film noir is a boy’s club, with women’s roles in the medium relegated to femme fatales and beautiful corpses. But as with so much received wisdom, this ignores some pretty crucial fundamentals, not least noir’s roots in the high-flung emotions and ghostly mysteries of Gothic fiction. Blow the Man Down may open with the manliest of fishermen romancing the ocean waves, but make no mistake, this is a tale of elemental feminine agency.

Following a scene-setting prologue, the film begins proper at the funeral of the mother of Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor). In this tidy domestic space, signs of violence are everywhere: knives cut through the flesh of freshly-gutted fish; floorboards creak as if concealing secrets beneath; funereal black dominates long after the wake has concluded. Underneath the clucking of the late Mother Connolly’s elderly friends is a hard resolution, affirmed in their agreement that in life there was no problem that the sisters’ mother wouldn’t come through on. Later, a key character will mention that young women are often underestimated, but here we’re left in no doubt of the cast-iron will of this triumvirate of domestic matriarchs. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts of casseroles and pot pie.

Left to the sisters, Connolly is a failing fishmongers business and a mountain of debt. Priss – a model of taut reservation – is resolved to see the strife through, while Mary Beth’s – looser and messier than her sister – only resolve is to get the hell out of their “shitty” town. With pitch-perfect casting, Lowe and Saylor’s performances are beautifully complementary: Priss’ hair scraped back into a ponytail draws attention to a severe, angular beauty, like a tightly wound violin string about to snap. The lighting of her doorway, in which she stands statuesque in two key scenes, further emphasises the Gothic-heroine qualities of her features.

Meanwhile, Mary Beth is altogether earthier, messier, responding to grief not with emotional austerity, but by getting lit at the town’s dive bar and picking up the first skeezy guy she can find. And thus, the game is afoot: after Mary Beth is spooked by the suspicious accoutrements in Gorski’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) car, Gorski parks up at the docks to make a ham-fisted attempt at grabbing her. His assault is quickly met with a harpoon to the throat and a brick to the head. Seeking the help of her level- headed sister, Mary Beth and Priss hide the body, but in so doing, unravel a conspiracy at the heart of the community.

Working with a familiarly noirish premise that could have come straight from a Coen Brothers’ script, the brilliance of Cole and Krudy’s Blow the Man Down is in its rich textures and its refusal to compromise on its characters. Like all great noir, there is no good and evil here, no purely innocent and no fully corrupt. And like all great Gothic fiction, its heroines are less human beings than forces of nature; of the film’s few male characters, the most important lesson for callow cop Justin (Will Brittain) is to know when to let the ocean waves to their own devices.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell