A briny Northeastern noir powered by women with secrets, “Blow the Man Down” is a pleasantly spiky slinging of small-town sin that should prove to be eminently companionable viewing for these sequestered, streamable times.
Writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, making their feature debut, are clearly more than just fans of a beloved crime subgenre known primarily for doomed men and conniving ladies. They’re believers — as the Coens were unveiling “Fargo” — in noir’s adaptability, in this case to a tale steeped in sisterhood and sea shanties.
Our entry into the filmmakers’ invented setting of sleepy, isolated Easter Cove, Maine, is bifurcated, amusingly, by traditional gender roles. First, we see the area’s burly fishermen singing the legendary title work song against a cloudy coral sky as if we’re in the overture of a seafaring adventure, after which we learn where all the women can be found: at the wake for respected town elder Mary Margaret Connolly, trading stories in a homey kitchen.
For Mary Margaret’s grown daughters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), however, the glowing tales of mom’s tried-and-true friendship — as told by her longtime pals Susie (June Squibb), Gail (Annette O’Toole) and Doreen (Marceline Hugot) — are little comfort when what the sisters have been left with is a debt-ridden fish shop and the possible loss of the family house. The siblings also have their issues with each other — restless Mary Beth eager to escape town, having mostly been absent, while responsible, pragmatic Priscilla ran the business and took care of their ailing mom.
What makes their grieving considerably more dire, however, is Mary Beth’s run-in later that night with a dangerous character at the local bar, the consequences of which leave both sisters with blood on their hands, on the soles of their mom’s treasured rain boots, and in a gruesomely stuffed ice chest pushed off a seaside cliff into the roiling waters. It’s a situation compounded by the discovery of a bag of cash and, the next day, a young woman’s body washed ashore, all of which puts the sisters in the unfortunate cross hairs of both a sweet-natured but suspicious young lawman (Will Brittain) and Easter Cove’s resident vice boss, B&B owner and madame Enid Devlin, played with deep-set steeliness by Margot Martindale like the treasured maestra she’s become portraying cagey matriarchs.
As secrets are spilled and this salty burg’s hidden nexus of female enterprise and power is exposed, “Blow the Man Down” satisfies as a modest blend of suspense, wit and social commentary, with the theme of old ways bumping up against new reckonings getting a nicely complex feminist shading, and Todd Banhazl’s grainy cinematography providing plenty of coastal snap. The story’s sharp turns are nicely echoed, too, in the jig-like, clattery score from Brian McOmber and Jordan Dykstra, with the atmosphere often punctuated by professional shanty singer David Coffin (seen on screen as one of those fishermen) occasionally warbling the ominous sea tune “Blood Red Roses.”
The performances, especially Squibb’s and Lowe’s, add to the portrait of a close-knit community struggling to reconcile its friendly grit with its darker compromises. But even so, Cole and Krudy aren’t always in the surest command of their various strands — when a hard-edged prostitute played by Gayle Rankin briefly takes center stage as an amateur sleuth, the movie seems to lose interest in Priscilla’s and Mary Beth’s desperate straits, which was what drew us in in the first place. The conclusion, likewise, seems more invested in making dramatic points than being the nervy climax we’ve expected from so fraught a collision of flinty yet under-the-gun women.
But overall, “Blow the Man Down” — like the crustier cousin to that other charming, lethal Cove of crime fiction (the one with Angela Lansbury) — is a diverting, scrappy good time and a solid calling card for a couple of new filmmakers with more on their mind than just giving us one more tale of bad things happening to decent people.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Amazon Prime