Easter Cove is the sort of quaint port town that dots long stretches of the Northeastern seaboard’s coast, home to a community of fishermen and widows and maybe a drunken fuck-up or three. It’s the sort of small town that can seem cozy or claustrophobic; for Mary Beth Connolly (Homeland‘s Morgan Saylor), it’s definitely the latter. She’s hoping to go to “UMaine” next year for college, something she’s already postponed so she and her sister, Priscilla (Sophie Lowe), could take care of their dying ma and tend to the family’s corner store. “You’ll be glad ya put family first,” says one of a trio of busybodies (played by Annette O’Toole, June Squib and 30 Rock‘s Marceline Hugot) at their mother’s wake. Mary Beth, however, is starting to see the walls closing in. The fact that the sisters may potentially lose the house isn’t helping.
This is how she winds up trashed in a bar while still in her black funeral dress, and then in the car of a local gent (Ebon-Moss Bachrach) who’s clearly bad news, and then, through a series of circumstances, holding a bloody harpoon. It’s also how Mary Beth eventually ends up in the possession of a corpse and a bag of loot, a typical occurrence in crime stories of this ilk. There’s every reason to think that Blow the Man Down, the debut feature from Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, is going to tread down a very well-trod pulped-out path: Good people make bad decisions. Everything goes to hell in a decorative handbasket. What starts out as a simple plan will be destined to become, well, A Simple Plan redux.
Kudos to the duo for not sticking to a million other scripts by making this plot turn the primary focus, though you sometimes wish they had kept on that straighter, narrower narrative — it would make things a bit more focused overall in their New England noir, and slightly less diffusive while slouching towards its conclusion. A tightening of the screws would have helped this thriller immensely. But Cole and Krudy are after something a little different here than just two sister and one downward spiral. They’re more interested in the where and the why of this situation, which means they’re broadening the scope a bit. Otherwise, you might not have little touches like a Greek chorus of fishermen who show up to sing sea shanties, and momentarily make things go from regionally realistic to mythic. It also means that you get to meet the person who’s the real center of this story.
Her name is Enid Nora Develin, she’s played by Margo Martindale (apologies, “Character Actress Margo Martindale”) and to say that the award-winning performer is the not-so-secret weapon here would be redundant. Enid was an old friend of the girls’ mother. She’s also the town pariah, because she runs a brothel and is the source of the community’s original sin. The elder Mrs. Connelly was the one person who kept those three biddies from running Enid out on a rail, and now that she’s gone, the independent businesswoman is in their crosshairs. When one of her working girls happens to get fished out of the bay, the bullseye on her back gets even bigger. She may also have a connection to what’s happening with the Connelly sisters as well. Martindale doesn’t just riff on her Justified story arc about a rural criminal queenpin, she uses it as an excuse to own every scene she’s in. You start wondering what her blowsy force of nature is up to every time she’s not on screen. It creates an imbalance that the film can’t always right.
Intertwining these two strands together — and throwing in a nosy new-recruit policeman (Will Brittain) and a suspicious young employee of Enid’s (GLOW‘s Gayle Rankin) for good measure — Blow the Man Down winds its way around the notion the behind every small town’s facade is a whole mess of secrets. This is not news, especially when it comes to thrillers. But there’s an undertow happening under the murder, money and menace aspects. There are not just two stories going on in this movie but two conceptual notions, one of which plays a somewhat slack shell game with old pulp clichés. The other has to do with the way the community views its female denizens, and the ways in which a matriarchy is needed to keep order. Keep your eye on that, and you suddenly realize how Cole and Krudy have slyly used the genre elements as a cover. It’s a good thing to remember while you watch this. That, and the fact that he locals always take care of their own.