More movies could use a genuine, in-the-flesh Greek Chorus and this one’s the proof. Blow the Man Down‘s most audacious stylistic choice is the way it breaks its story up into loose chapters with a recurring device in which gruff, East Coast fishermen sing old-fashioned sea shanties directly to the camera. The first instance of these periodic Greek Chorus interjections was so jarring that I was convinced the movie was going to be a full-blown musical. Instead, the antique, weathered sea shanties are merely used to break the film up into acts, commenting on the moods & perils of the film’s protagonists after major events in their journey. It’s about as classic of a theatrical device as possible, elevating the modern on-screen drama with an Old-World patina without distracting from its in-the-moment thrills. It’s such an effective device that it’s a wonder you don’t see it exploited in modern cinema more often. Part of what makes the device work so well here, though, is that the movie would still be great without it. It’s an enhancement, not a crutch.
Blow the Man Down is a small-scale thriller about two sisters who stumble into their East Coast fishing town’s criminal underworld when they find themselves needing to dispose of a cruel, dead man’s body. In their scramble to cover up a man’s death, they clash with local police corruption, the terrifying madam who runs the community brothel (Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale), and their own naïve misconceptions of their family’s history on both sides of the law. The entire picture is sharply edited & performed with a dark sense of humor lurking behind each thriller beat. It recalls other normal-people-in-over-their-head-with-hyperviolence pictures like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin or the Saulnier-adjacent black comedy I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Except, it’s specifically about a community of women competently running things behind the scenes while clueless men bumble about in the foreground, which is not a dynamic I can remember seeing in a post-Coens, Saulnier-adjacent thriller before. It’s an incredibly stylish movie, especially considering the scale of its budget, but it’s also one with a distinct thematic core that distinguishes it within its genre.
The attention-grabbing Greek Chorus device that binds this film together is far from its sole distinguishing feature. It’s just indicative of the stylish, heightened eye the film generally applies to its otherwise familiar thriller beats. The coastal Maine fisheries setting makes violence feel like an everyday part of life in this isolated, unpoliced community. Gutted fish, sharpened boning knives, and rickety harpoons recall the same fishing-town hyperviolence of over-the-top slashers like The Mutilator & I Know What You Did Last Summer – except that the characters navigating that treacherous ground feel like real, fully fleshed-out people. Part of that three-dimensional characterization means that they have a dry, withering sense of humor even in the face of traumatizing brutality. That humor is communicated loud & clear as soon as the first sea shanty, when the lead Greek Chorus member literally winks at the camera with a full Bugs Bunny sense of deviousness. It only gets more nuanced & discomforting as the violence escalates.
Blow the Man Down is frequently brutal & cold, following bone-tired characters as they trudge through the blue hues & white snows of coastal Maine as if they were walking corpses just waiting to be chopped up & shoved into fishing coolers. It’s also a warmly human movie about a silent system of tough, shrewd women, each with their own morbid senses of humor and touches of whimsy. Its Greek Chorus sea shanties device is an excellent attention-grabber and a concise summation of the film’s harsh tonal clashes at large, but it’s not all the film has to offer. It’s only a siren song, luring you to violently crash onto the rocks so the real drama can wash over your wreckage.