Official Trailer for "Small Town Murder Songs" (Monterey Media)
In this brooding, brutal, spare and strangely poetic crime drama from Toronto-based filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly, a small Ontario township is home to horse-drawn buggies and pick-up trucks, pristine lakes and overrun dumps, churches and strip joints, professed pacifism and sudden outbursts of violence. In this place of contrasts, lawman and criminal are tortuously embodied in one man, police chief Walter, who is played by the hulking Swedish-born actor Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon).
Walter is clearly weighted down by something in his past, a torment suggested not just by the man's weary, hunted look but by the neo-gospel music of Canadian indie group Bruce Peninsula-- which Gass-Donnelly uses to incredible, evocative effect-- and large, looming intertitles that say things like "REPENT AND PROFESS YOUR FAITH."
Walter has repented and professed, but he clings to his born-again religion with a physical ferocity that hints at what he's trying to bury. His hidden sin seems to have something to do with his hard-living former lover Rita (Law & Order's Jill Hennessy). When the body of a murdered young woman is found in the town dump and the investigation leads back to Rita and her new boyfriend, Steve (Winnipeg's own Stephen Eric McIntyre), Walter's past opens up with terrible consequences.
This minimalist film, which combines elements of the police procedural, rural noir, and a touch--really just the slightest smidge--of deadpan Coen Brothers strangeness, is concentrated in its consistently strong performances.
Stormare's habitually hooded and laconic acting style is tweaked, just slightly, to suggest enormous reserves of pain. McIntyre, who is becoming the indie Canadian go-to guy for scary, borderline feral characters, plays Steve with sinewy, snaggle-toothed menace. Hennessy does a lot with her small, unexpectedly tough role, while Martha Plimpton won a Whistler Film Fest award for her work as a sweet lunch-counter waitress put in the impossible position of being Walter's better angel. The late Canadian theatre and film actor Jackie Burroughs steals a scene in what was her last on-screen role.
Gass-Donnelly, who probed urban anxieties in his debut film This Beautiful City, turns his cinematic gaze to the Canadian heartland, producing a study in atmosphere and buried emotion. There's a precise, cut-to-the-bone quality in Small Town Murder Songs. In fact, the film is too short, clocking in at a super-compressed 75 minutes, and leaves too much unsaid.
These are problems, but in an age where so many films go on and on and on, not terrible problems.