In “Blow the Man Down,” the Connolly sisters — Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) — bury two bodies. The first is somewhat expected; their mother, Mary Margaret (Linda Shary), recently passed after suffering a difficult illness. However, after a drunken night ends with Mary Beth killing a dangerous criminal (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with a harpoon, the sisters make him “disappear,” unexpectedly involving themselves in a web of crime weaving throughout their seaside town of Easter Cove, Maine.
Like all good mysteries, the devil’s in the details, and writer/directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy know just how to put them on screen. However, at first glance, I’m annoyed by the wealth of close-ups. I can almost read the script’s staccato descriptions of life in a fishing town: A fisherman stacks traps. A man sings a shanty. A rake scoops fish on a deck. A man stabs a fish’s eye out of socket. This develops atmosphere through an impressionistic lens; movies do this often. But looking closer, I discover Cole and Krudy’s strength is imbuing character into these impressions. In each establishing shot, whether the camera pans across a dining table or observes a car driving, Cole and Krudy engage me with choices revealing who these characters are and how they tick.
In Priscilla’s view, Easter Cove is a warm, closely knit community of fishermen’s families. In Mary Beth’s, it’s a shithole — one she’s anxious to leave once she starts college. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Whether small-town traditions should be judged as the products of carefully maintained history or as dying relics of a world that’s long since moved on is something the movie questions in the background. Through the juxtaposition of contrasting elements — the shanty-singing elders and baby-faced vapers, the score which chops and screws traditional strings into a glitchy, almost sample-based groove — the movie builds an uneasy tension between the generations who built the town and the ones yet to inherit the fruits of their labor.
I catch glimpses of who Mary Margaret might’ve been through seeing the demeanors of her daughters. Priscilla is the more analytical of the sisters, the most controlled and able to keep up appearances under pressure. Compare that to Mary Beth, who, quite literally, with her bright red wardrobe, sticks out from the movie’s cyan tones like “Where’s Waldo?” She’s perpetually unsatisfied, a risk-taker who shoots from the hip more often than I think she’d like or can handle. I enjoy Lowe and Saylor’s chemistry, and I wish they had more screen time. However, by stitching together the sisters’ personalities, I start to understand how vital Mary Margaret’s presence was to the town’s well-being.
The men work on the sea, so the women take on the mantle of protecting the town’s welfare. That matriarchal energy, that need to protect the domestic tranquility, gives the movie one of its most interesting dilemmas. The Oceanview bed, breakfast and brothel is the town’s House of the Rising Sun; it serves as both a noted attraction for and blight on Easter Cove’s history. When one of the Oceanview’s girls turns up dead, the town’s resident gossipers — Susie, Doreen and Gail (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot and Annette O’Toole) — find themselves at odds with Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale), the Oceanview’s prickly owner.
Martindale is the movie’s MVP, plain and simple. She best represents the town’s duplicity: nurturing on the surface and ruthless underneath. In one scene, one of Enid’s girls confronts her about her involvement in the town’s crimes. Those next minutes see Martindale as tender, loving, intimidating, sly and cunning, all without expressing a false beat. Martindale’s range and command of the screen is stellar; while it’s premature to discuss awards season, it’d be a crime to ignore her contributions. While the movie (rightly) vilifies Enid for her misdeeds, there’s definitely an argument to be made that in a town full of sinners, she simply drew the shortest straw.
Don’t be fooled — Easter Cove is a town of sin. In any other occasion, this town would be used as B-roll for Maine’s tourism commercial, but the movie mutes its New England charm with so many shadows and desaturated palettes that I can’t help but feel uneasy. There’s a sinister dread to how this story unfolds, made palatable through black humor. Is it too on-the-nose to hearken back to Stephen King here? Maybe stories set in Maine are just prime fodder for the fears that come with a repressive small town.
The townsfolk hide their transgressions in plain sight, in jaunty songs and gift-shop decor. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll do wrong, but rather which wrongs they’re willing to live with. The Greek chorus of orange-wader-wearing fishermen tell the story: In Easter Cove, sinning and living go hand-in-hand. Is that the best way to live? No, but it’s their way.
It’s this bluntness that makes “Blow the Man Down” both discomforting and humorous; it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Cole and Krudy used the Coen Brothers’ similarly dark and morally concerned filmography as inspiration. If you’re into thrillers, whodunnits or black comedies, I think you’ll find quite a bit to enjoy from this wicked nautical tale.
“Blow the Man Down” can be streamed now on Amazon Prime.
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.