Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Trudy’s Blow the Man Down begins with a spirited rendition of the seaman’s chant of the same name (some of you may have heard Woody Guthrie’s version of it) — we see a group of seasoned greybeards belting it out even as we look around Easter Cove, Maine; the tiny port town where our story is set.
Now, one might question exactly how singing a song about a gale knocking you down at sea is supposed to be good luck for sailors — it is actually in the same vein as theatre actors saying ‘break a leg’ to each other before going onstage. It is quiet courage with just the right amount of fatalism; like the Faceless Men saying ‘Valar morghulis’ (all men must die) on Game of Thrones. It sets the tone for Blow the Man Down, a delectable small-town noir that starts off as Fargo Lite before establishing its unique voice, and delivering a stunning finale marked by poetic justice.
Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor) and her older sister Priscilla have an argument at their mother’s funeral (Priscilla withheld the extent of their financial troubles from Mary Beth), following which Mary storms off, and ends up hitching a ride with a stranger named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Mary notices blood in the trunk of his car, and before you know it, things escalate — fearing for her life, Mary grabs a harpoon off the nearby docks, and impales her attacker. This triggers a sequence of events that will test the sister’s relationship, as well as the complex network of loyalties and motivations among the residents of the town, and its keepers; three proverbial little old ladies, Susie Gallagher (June Squibb), Gail Maguire (Annette O’Toole), and Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot).
Todd Banhazi’s cinematography deserves a lot of credit for the effectiveness of Blow the Man Down. Right from the first shot, where a man chases a woman in the snow in the distance, the camerawork is sharp, decisive, and underlines the ‘low-key noir’ sensibilities of the film beautifully. A school of fishes in a net, being transferred into a barrel, the murder-via-harpoon, the sister’s awkward attempts to get rid of Gorski’s body — these are all very different kinds of scenes involving different challenges as a cinematographer, and Banhazi aces every last one of them.
Squibb, who you might remember as Kate Grant from Nebraska (or indeed, Sheldon Cooper’s impossibly cherubic grandmother ‘Meemaw’ from The Big Bang Theory) does a brilliant job too. She is perfectly cast as the mild-mannered matriarch with a secret. Everything about her is low-key and yet, Squibb manages to imbue her scenes with an inscrutable charisma. Saylor and Lowe are also competent as the Connolly sisters.
The most memorable performance, however, belongs to Margo Martindale (most recently seen reprising her role as a fictionalised version of herself on the concluding season of BoJack Horseman). She plays Enid, the quietly menacing owner of the local brothel, named Oceanview. This establishment seems to have everybody’s blessings, including the local police, but everything is not what it seems, of course.
Martindale’s ability to infuse even innocuous statements with a simmering, righteous disdain is remarkable. Even the subtle way she uses her cane makes it feel like more of a superhero/supervillain’s accessory than a crutch. Without her, Blow the Man Down would have been remembered as a fun, eccentric cousin to Fargo et al. With her, it will be rightly remembered as a classic of the genre.
In the recent past, many filmmakers have created characters like Enid, with uneven results — the idea is to have a visibly ‘strong woman’ heading a traditionally patriarchal institution (a recent, if somewhat misguided example from Bollywood is the Mardaani cop film franchise, starring Rani Mukerji). These characters can go two ways — they either subvert the familiar male hegemonic pattern that comes with their office, or they end up becoming the kind of hegemonic power they started off fighting. And Enid actually occupies both of these roles, and everything in between; it takes some serious acting on Martindale’s part to convey all of this in what is, at the end of the day, a supporting act in an already compact film (at just under 90 minutes). The second of her two scenes with Susie and Co is a miniature masterpiece by itself.
At the end of the movie, we see the sailor’s songs again, this time being hummed by Susie and her fellow matriarchs. It is a subtle show of strength by the women who run Easter Cove, as if to say, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” It is an immensely warm, likeable moment, one that will stay with you for a long time.
Blow the Man Down establishes Bridgette Savage Cole and Danielle Trudy as major new talents, miners of the macabre, and it will be fascinating to see what they do next.
Blow the Man Down is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Updated Date: May 16, 2020 14:29:17 IST