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Cinequest Review: Small Town Murder Songs

By  · Published on March 7th, 2011

Small Town Murder Songs – directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly
Festival screening times – 3/6 @ 430pm, 3/11 @ 245pm

Walter (Peter Stormare) is the police chief of a small Ontario town where the most violent happenings are usually bar fights between drunken locals. He himself was a violent man once upon a time, but the love of a good woman (Martha Plimpton) and a newfound faith in God have changed him for the better.

Or have they?

The nude body of a young woman is found on the outskirts of town, and Walter soon identifies a prime suspect for her rape and murder. Trouble is the man is a local who not only shares a violent past with Walter but is currently living with Walter’s ex, Rita (Jill Hennessy). As the investigation continues his findings and motivations come under scrutiny by an outside detective, and the foundations of his recently built, peaceful exterior begin to crack. Can this newly baptized man of God resist the temptations of the past and the pull towards violence and survive his path to redemption?

“If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer them your left.”

Ed Gass-Donnelly’s latest film is a small town Gothic less interested in the whodunit aspect than it is in the atmosphere and characters involved. He presents this small, Mennonite community as tight-knit and private but clearly filled with secret sins. It’s also an environment with long term memories that make it difficult for a person to change. Walter’s past involves violent rages that still haunt him, but if he can change why can’t Rita’s new boyfriend, Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre)? Walter’s suspicions seem based as much on his feelings towards Steve as they do on any real evidence, and his rekindled feelings for her make his judgment questionable to say the least.

Stormare’s presence and performance are integral to the film’s success for two reasons. First, the actor brings the baggage of past roles filled with menace and violent capabilities. To say that he’s been typecast in the past is an understatement so the viewer already sees him through a brutality-infused lens. And even more relevant (and often missing from critiques of his work), Stormare can be a good actor. You not only believe Walter is capable of past and future violence you believe he’s truly struggling against those very impulses. And that they might win.

This is a beautiful film both visually and aurally. Brendan Steacy’s cinematography offers up roads and fields shrouded in fog and dampness and interiors that feel lived in but far from warm. The film’s score is by Bruce Peninsula and features songs heavy on percussion and chorus that mix folk and gospel in a way that lulls the listener in to the mood and atmosphere. Brief bible quotes appear onscreen as inter-titles offering instruction from the good book that are both challenging and ironic, and we feel that Walter’s journey towards redemption will be stopping in all the wrong places.

Less successful is an ending that feels a bit conflicted as it tries to balance the well-worn dictates of the procedural genre alongside the well-earned path of the characters. Can an ending be right for the characters but wrong for the film? It feels like the answer here is yes. Also more of a question mark than a clear success is the time devoted to a young officer working alongside Walter. We see brief bits of his home life with a wife and daughter, but it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of relevance to the film as a whole.

Still, Small Town Murder Songs works more often than not thanks to quality acting and an eerie atmosphere brought to life through both images and song. The overcast landscape, the people who’ve given up on ambition and change, and the pounding rhythms of Bruce Peninsula immerse the viewer into this small, isolated community filled with people who do both right and wrong but never waver from their true character. Can a man truly change? And even more of a challenge, can a man change when those around him don’t believe it possible?

The Cinequest Film Festival runs from March 1st to the 13th in San Jose, CA. Check the Cinequest site for more information and complete schedules.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.