December 2, 2021

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‘Blow the Man Down’ Is a Feminist Spin on the Coen Brothers With Sex Workers

Jeong Park/Amazon
Jeong Park/Amazon

Writers and directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole spent eight years on the script for their first feature, Blow the Man Down, a dry comedy-thriller set in a Maine fishing village. Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla “Pris” (Sophie Lowe) Connolly are two sisters at a crossroads—their mother has died, and not long after, Mary Beth, the misbehaved one angling to escape from small-town life, kills a predatory stranger (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Pris, the goody two-shoes who keeps the family fish shop up and running, breaks bad when she helps Mary Beth get rid of the body.

But behind the main narrative’s sleepy intrigue lurks a sex-work network, headed up by none other than Margo Martindale, playing Enid, a sneaky, deep-voiced madam with a soft spot for the Connolly sisters’ departed mother. A trio of sweet grandmas are worried that Enid’s brothel, called Oceanview, has gotten out of hand, and decide to make it their business, unleashing a sordid story about class, respectability, and survival amongst two generations of women. Add your rookie good cop who has a crush on Pris and his unscrupulous veteran partner and you’ve got your classic off-beat dark comedy set in “ordinary” America, interpreted through a feminist lens.

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But what twists Blow the Man Down away from the cleverness trap it sets up for itself is the fact that, at least in the version I watched on Amazon Prime, the color grading is off. The movie is intentionally filmed in natural light—the densely black nights and hazy gray mornings of Maine make characters hard to make out—but the extreme rendering of those choices actually make the movie hard to follow, since you must strain your eyes to see who’s who. I wouldn’t have known Moss-Bachrach was in the film if I hadn’t paused at one point to see the listed cast.

I bring this up because the film’s distracting visual obscurity speaks to its other well-intentioned but unfinished qualities. For instance, we get a sketch of the Connolly sisters, but the actors are unable to lift their characterizations beyond the surface; instead of casting the sisters as professional actors (Lowe is an Australian actor and musician and Saylor, an American, starred in White Girl and Homeland), Krudy and Cole might have chosen true locals with skills and a natural expressiveness for the lead roles, taking a page from French director Bruno Dumont’s Quinquin series, for example.

Instead, Mary Beth and Pris are caricatures of young women from a Maine fishing village—one wild and a bit ignorant, the other stoic and savvy. But Martindale as well as the brilliant June Squibb (known best for Nebraska), Annette O’Toole, and Marceline Hugot play their older ladies with a level of expertise that makes you wish the movie was entirely about them. And it could’ve been—the story of the Oceanview brothel is a tale in and of itself, one that implicates a kind of striving feminism of one set of women in the increasing precariousness of another more vulnerable set who have yet to find their fortune.

Around the films corners lurk men—some ostensibly good, some obviously bad, others willfully ignorant, and yet more simply trying to make a living and get their rocks off from time to time. Of course, the women are the ones who must busy themselves with the consequences. Blow the Man Down makes a worthwhile attempt at making sense of the moral stakes of such preoccupations.

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