Blow the Man Down (2020)

The Coen Brothers have been on my mind as of late. They usually are, granted, but especially so now that we’ve made the (ill-advised?) decision to dive into a complete Coen retrospective in our Director Series column. That means we’ve signed up for a lot of likable characters making drastically dumb decisions against a lovingly-rendered period America and a deep bench of memorable supporting players. You want pitch-black comedy? You got it. You want films that actually earn the moniker neo-noir? You got it, again and again. So how about a little break from the Coen-verse? Perhaps a new indie flick on Amazon to shake things up? Sure. Nice change of pace.

Nice.

Blow the Man Down, the great debut feature from Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, certainly deserves to be enjoyed and appraised on its own merits. Set in a salt-brined fishing village in Maine, the film follows sisters Mary Beth and Priscilla (Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe) as they navigate various threads of surprising violence, bad decisions, seedy characters and down-home busybodies. The leaps the sisters need to take to stay ahead of the curve become increasingly dangerous, and eventually an entire criminal underbelly is unearthed from the seemingly quiet ground on which the town rests.

Since Blow the Man Down‘s debut at Tribeca last year, most have been quick to use “Coen-esque” as a descriptor. We’ve lamented that kind of 1-to-1 snap-judgment in film criticism before, as when the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here was reduced to “Taxi Driver for a new generation.” Just last year it was another flick being called “Coen-esque”: The Death of Dick Long, which followed a pair of idiotic rednecks as they…well, navigated various threads of surprising violence, bad decisions, seedy characters and down-home busybodies. The setup for these films might make for such easy comparisons, but rarely does the execution actually follow suit. And Blow the Man Down serves as a perfect case-in-point, starting in a similar place to Fargo or Blood Simple but ending up in another world entirely.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

Apart from the atmospheric wind-chill of dread and murder, the fictional coastal town of Easter Cove carries with it a distinct sense of history. This did not happen by accident, and it’s perhaps another point of divergence from the Brothers Coen. Explicitly, the sunken history of Easter Cove comes into play throughout the events of the story. At the start of the film we meet Pris and Mary Beth Connolly at their mother’s funeral, establish the Connolly family business, peep through a local bed and breakfast and a local tavern. Nearly all of these events and locales return later under a different, more sinister guise. Outlandish as the tale gets, the feeling that Easter Cove is “real” always keeps Blow the Man Down grounded.

Cole and Krudy shore up this sense of history by approaching it from both a micro- and macro-perspective. The former is all about the details, key to any successful world-building. There’s a fisherman character named Paulie (Owen Burke) who crops up from time to time, at the tavern when Mary Beth’s there for a drink, at the pier when Officer Brennan (Will Brittain) is trying to work his investigation. Paulie the townie serves little discernible purpose for the plot, but he’s vital to that tangible sense of history. In an intangible, macro-level sense, the group of singing fisherman that drift abstractly through Blow the Man Down serve much the same purpose as Paulie. They serve no plot purpose and occasionally wink at the camera, ghosts that are not actually present, perhaps, in Easter Cove, Maine. But their dirges build atmosphere on an emotional level, as much a part of the locale as the protagonists.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

And one cannot mention the protagonists of Blow the Man Down without bringing up the antagonists — specifically Enid Devlin, played with earth-shaking menace by Margo Martindale. Martindale is great in pretty much every role she touches, but she’s particularly notable as Enid. There are bombastic moments from Enid, sure, fire-and-brimstone soliloquies that would play in a trailer or a performance reel at an awards show. But Enid’s somehow more threatening as she sits calmly in the dryer chair at her salon, fending off her neighbors with a thin barb and a thick smile. Martindale nails this subtler side of her character, and as with so much else in the film, it’s endlessly compelling to probe the hint of malice behind Enid’s friendly countenance.

So while comparisons to other films are perhaps not incorrect, the most memorable aspects of Blow the Man Down are almost invariably those of pure originality. It’ll be interesting to see where Cole and Krudy (who also wrote the film) go next, whether they lean into or away from such comparisons, whether we’ll watch their next film and call it “________ for a new generation.” Shorn of allusion, though, Blow the Man Down stands on its own as a worthwhile jaunt to a place you only think you’ve visited before.

Blow the Man Down is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

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