Blow the Man Down crams a surplus of pop-culture moods into a pint-sized package of 91 minutes — a little Thelma & Louise here, a lot of Coen Brothers there, a sinister spin on Steel Magnolias at the edges, a smidge of Winter’s Bone with a wicked sense of humor.
It’s not just the passel of preeminent TV actresses that makes you think this film from writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy might fare better as an anthology series about the salty spray of secrets in the oceanside town of Easter Cove, Maine. (Perhaps it’s headed that way anyway, given the film’s premiere on Amazon Prime Video.)
Although it could use a bigger boat for all its characters, there’s enough gale-force velocity to prop up Cole and Krudy’s film — and there’s no reason to complain about a film that gives Character Actress Margo Martindale (as BoJack Horseman would say) her feature-length due.
Like Fargo with Frozen’s opening, Blow the Man Down kicks off with an onscreen performance of its titular sea shanty — sung by the ominously monikered David Coffin, who offers a Greek chorus of bleak chords throughout. These ballads of beleaguered and beset boatmen, complemented by a cacophonous score from Brian McOmber and Jordan Dykstra, set the tone for a tale of two sisters afraid they’ll be dragged to their own inescapable depths.
Initially, those murky waters represent the rigid roles demanded of Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor, late of Homeland) and Priscilla Connolly (Sophia Lowe of The Returned). Easter Cove’s townsfolk expect them to be dutiful daughters to Mary Margaret, whose death opens the film, and stewards of the family’s fishing business that has gone underwater in all the wrong ways. However, Mary Beth is eager to finally escape to the University of Maine, expecting Priscilla will shore things up as she often has. A pan across a spread of food at Mary Margaret’s wake feels like a death sentence of drudgery for both of the young women.
After an unexpectedly violent turn on a night of escapism (conveyed with immaculately cheerless detail down to windshield grime), Mary Beth and Priscilla find themselves at the center of a mystery — involving malevolent fishermen, a sack of cash, a body shot up with track marks and bullets, a group of ladies who invert The Music Man’s gossip-mongers’ refrain into give a little, take a lot, the legacy of their own family, and Martindale as a madame at the middle of it all.
Down rushes a little too headlong into its plot before we can piece together the pattern of the sisters’ dynamic let alone a sextet of supporting characters. With the expanse of a limited series, you sense Cole and Krudy could follow up fully with all of these women rather than fawn over a few. Gayle Rankin, so great as Sheila the She Wolf on GLOW, feels more like a cudgel of narrative convenience rather than a fully fleshed-out character, and it would be wonderful to have more of Annette O’Toole, June Squibb and Marceline Hugot (Gladys from The Leftovers or Kathy Geiss from 30 Rock, depending on your TV tastes) as the town’s quaintly conspiratorial power brokers.
But it’s easy to appreciate Blow the Man Down’s nigh-exclusive focus on the women in town who, for good or for ill, keep things functioning in Easter Cove while all the fellas futz around. The closest thing to a brain in any of the guys comes from Will Brittain as an enterprising young police officer.
Cole and Krudy also wind Martindale up and turn her loose in the right ways, framing her for one shot in such a way that makes it seem like Enid Nora Devlin alone is blighting the Easter Cove sun. That wasn’t Enid’s intent when beginning her business as a brothel owner, but it’s grown to feel that way. Martindale excels in her usual mode of matronly menace but also gins up no small amount of sympathy for a devil who knows she can only get so far in a socially stratified system stacked against her. You sense Enid tried to find a bit of dignity in a dynasty built on degradation but long ago gave up that futile fight … and also get to hear Martindale utter “Toodle-oo, catty bitches.”
Through her performance, Blow the Man Down gets across its main thesis about the many women onscreen: If you can face a stiff wind long enough, you’ll find comfort in the chill while everyone else clamors for warmth. Ultimately that’s enough for this crusty crime-dramedy to find its sea legs.