Blow the Man Down snagged me right away with its bold, stylized opening. From an establishing shot of a gently lolling boat in a foggy bay, the camera pans over to a pier, where a craggy fisherman sits on lobster crates while singing the title song directly to the camera. Other men join in, as insert shots catalog the gruesomeness—fish stabbed with a pitchfork, slit open, hooks pulled through their eyes—of their profession. It all ends with the first singer giving us a wink, punctuated by the ding of a nautical bell.
We eventually leave these men to focus on two adult sisters—Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor)—who have recently lost their mother to cancer and are now left to run her small fish market. Yet that lilting male chorus—an echo of masculinity—wafts over the rest of the movie, especially as Priscilla and Mary Beth find themselves involved in a cover-up related to their small town’s sordid past.
With Blow the Man Down, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy—who co-wrote and co-directed the film, their feature debut—deliver a feminist-flecked variation on an early Coen brothers movie (or something like Sam Raimi’s underrated A Simple Plan). There’s a scene involving a body and a cooler that could come straight from Blood Simple, with its combination of grisliness and mordant humor, and Cole and Krudy walk that tightrope as deftly as their predecessors.
In the lead roles, Lowe and Saylor have a prickly, “good sister/bad sister” dynamic, but the performance of the movie is delivered by veteran character actress Margo Martindale. She plays Enid, the aging proprietor of a house of ill repute on the edge of town. Syrupy and scary, Enid is both madame and crime boss, yet in her own way still beholden to the male-dominated traditions of this community. Martindale makes Enid frighteningly funny, yet also gives her the arc of a tragic figure; you revile and root for her at the same time.
As a first feature, Blow the Man Down has some kinks. A bit more patience would have allowed for a fuller picture of this slice of Maine and its inhabitants (I could easily imagine this benefiting from the breathing space of a television series), while the plot, for a thriller, isn’t quite air tight. Yet there’s real wit and vision in the filmmaking, including that singing conceit. The crooning men reappear, like some sort of Greek chorus, at a crucial turning point midway through the story. And at the end, there is a reprise of the title song that’s sung by others in a darkly comic inversion. I won’t give the details away, except to say that the moment hits a perfect note.