The lazy way to describe “Blow The Man Down” would be “‘Fargo by way of New England.” Of course, it wouldn’t be wrong to compare the film to the works of the Coens; after all, it’s a tale of two people committing a crime and almost immediately falling way over the heads, not to mention the healthy dose of wit and black comedy. However, that would do a grave disservice to the sheer craft and talent on display from first time writer-directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole. And thanks to the social distancing everyone in America will be undergoing, what at first seemed like a cult favorite destined to be lost should quickly be discovered by the masses starving for entertainment.
One of the many quirks they bring to their tale is the fishermen, singing sea shanties at the beginning of the film. They don’t appear to be related to anyone in the story; eventually they’ll come to function as a Greek Chorus of sorts, their songs relating to the action on screen (the film, in fact, is named for the first such song they sing).
The camera pans away from their song to introduce us to The Sisters Connolly: Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor). It’s the day of their mother’s funeral and she’s left them with a lot of debt and their house in danger of being lost. If that wasn’t enough, Mary Beth kills a stranger she comes home from a bar with after she finds a gun in the glove box and blood in his trunk. Despite an unsure situation, Priscilla makes a snap decision and the two throw the body into the sea. Unfortunately for them, the corpse happened to be involved with local brothel owner Enid (Margo Martindale), and the deceased Connolly’s friends (Annette O’Toole, June Squibb and Marceline Hugot) see this as the perfect opportunity to remove Enid from the business.
A small town having its dark secrets revealed by a crime has been done to death in both television and film. Krudy and Cole freshen things up by incorporating their setting into the style and tone of the film, managing to shake any vestiges of “Fargo” that its snowy setting and black comedy might inspire. Todd Banzhal takes particular advantage of the rocky sea terrain, crafting some seriously beautiful images that resist going for the easy visual cliches. Elsewhere, Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber bring a jaunty, nautical vibe to go along with the shanties, and Marc Vives establishes a sharp editing style that adapts nicely to the rhythms. This is a film that demonstrates a well-honed sense of craft even on a relatively small budget, and it raises up all the elements around it, even down to Jasmine Ballou Jones’ great production design of the houses and the fish store.
Krudy and Cole’s script won Best U.S. Narrative Feature and indeed, the dialogue crackles off the page. Like the Coens, this duo has a subtle-but-dark strain of comedy, delivered with a salty New England voice from the cast.
Martindale is perfectly cast as the local crime lord, a role she’s played before on “Justified.” She’s not slouching, though, skillfully balancing menace and homespun folksiness. Lowe and Saylor have great prickly chemistry, the former taking the more responsible and nervous role and the latter free-spirited but maybe too casual.
Perhaps the most interesting thing the film does is flip the script on gender. This is a town whose underworld is run by the older women, with their husbands relegated to the background if even acknowledged at all. The girls who work for Enid are given depth in the form of Alexis (Gail Rankin) — the best friend of a murdered girl who also washes up on shore. It’s not always the most interesting part of the story, but it’s never boring, and Krudy and Cole understand when to switch back to the main story and add necessary tension.
“Blow the Man Down” is one of the best films of the year. In a time when everything seems chaotic, there’s something reassuring in seeing the introduction of bright new talent and their carefully controlled story. Krudy and Cole should be on everyone’s radar.