Hands that Bind – A Review
by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(November 1, 2023 – Toronto, ON) A scene near the opening of director Kyle Armstrong’s haunting drama Hands that Bind shows a tractor stopped in a field, black smoke rising out of the engine like a demon escaping the machinery. Soon after the farmstead is plagued with strange sounds, flickering lights, bursting lightbulbs, the mutation of livestock, and the frequent appearance of a car no one in the small Alberta farm community recognizes. These are the strange twists and turns Armstrong takes along the Alberta backroads. But these events, whether they indicate the nefarious tampering by aliens or another malicious source, take a back seat to the story of a farmhand whose life is becoming increasingly unrecognizable.
Armstrong’s foothold is in the story of Andy (Paul Sparks) a farmhand faced with an unexpected upheaval. Andy has been a godsend to Mac (Nicholas Campbell continuing a long list of reasons he’s one of Canada’s most cherished actors) whose own sons left to pursue other careers. Andy is devoted to his employer and to the livestock and the land he works with. He’s a family man, holding true to traditional family values—though some of his values, particularly around gender roles, are seriously archaic. Even so, life is good. Adam’s family is cared for. His children are loved. His wife, Susan (Susan Kent), although longing to get on with her own career, is warm and supportive.
But when Mac’s wayward son, Dirk (played by Landon Liboiron with the unlikable instability of a devoted narcissist) returns to stake claim on the homestead, Andy is forced to step aside. Not only is Andy and his family to move out of the farmhouse and into a trailer but now Andy is left without a job.
Armstrong’s choice to wrap an ethereal unknown presence around the drama of a man in crisis is decidedly curious but not unwanted. Understanding the nature of the bizarre unexplained nighttime ‘raids’ become less important than how these events simulate a changing landscape, internally as much as externally. They can be passed off as allegorical, a reflection of a shifting of ideas however unwelcomed the community may find them.
The film is set in the 80s, and a shift is coming.
Armstrong puts us in the lap of a community wary of change, where Indigenous land rights are scoffed at, women are expected to maintain the household, and homosexuals are forced to leave if they wish to live the life they deserve. And yet, regardless of the community’s fortitude to keep the status quo, new ideas and the people who hold true to them find their way in.
Except for Dirk, few of these men and women come across as malicious even when exposing their prejudices: Mac is a good man and yet never talks about his gay son, and casually dismisses a visit from the local veterinarian saying, “He’ll come out wearing his pink cowboy boots.”
In another incident, an overtly friendly neighbour visits the trailer with some garden-fresh tomatoes. Susan graciously accepts them suggesting she might make a tomato sauce for dinner that night. The neighbour replies that the tomatoes would be better in a stew, as she doesn’t much care for ethnic food. It’s almost comical in its ignorance.
But one of the film’s gems is in Bruce Dern’s portrayal of a neighbour living a near desolate life on his own farm. As would be expected, Dern’s performance is great, an effortless portrayal performed mostly from the driver’s side of his pick-up truck.
Even alongside Dern the entire cast, including engaging turns from the young actors playing Andy and Susan’s children, excel. Armstrong’s dialogue is authentic and flows naturally from the actors.
Armstrong has made a strange film, indeed. But it’s a film that deserves to be seen, from the beginning to its troubling end. Hands that Bind opens Friday, November 3, 2023.
Watch the trailer, learn more about the cast and crew of Hands that Bind.
Images courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.