It’s a rare film that feels too short, but “Small Town Murder Songs” leaves one wanting more — more murder story, mystery and revelations from lead thesp Peter Stormare and virtuoso helmer Ed Gass-Donnelly. Pic seems ripe for a remake, vaguely suggesting a Canadian “Insomnia,” but “Small Town” is so wedded to its provincial setting, Mennonite ambience and Germanic accents that relocation would likely dissolve its delicate tensions and psychology. Proper handling and name cast (Stormare, Jill Hennessy, Martha Plimpton) could boost specialty prospects for this modestly made but cosmically profound drama.
With his second feature, GassDonnelly achieves that longed-for thing, a whole greater than the parts, one in which each disparate element complements the other. Stormare’s portrayal of Walter, an Ontario policeman trying to suppress his violent temper through Jesus, is matched in its gravity by the music — mostly songs by Bruce Peninsula, which come on like an angry God, full of thunderous percussion and an unhinged chorus roaring in unison. Gass-Donnelly shoots tightly and intimately, accentuating the gravitas of Walter’s soul struggle. And while the giant titles that introduce each chapter of the story are New Testament-inspired (“Live in the world but not of it … “), it’s a decidedly Old Testament atmosphere that informs the place, and its people, particularly the stolid Walter.
At some time in the past (seen in an opening flashback), Walter beat someone severely, to the point that he has lost the affection not only of Rita (Hennessy) but of his father, brothers and the Mennonite community whence he sprang. His lack of moral status clearly affects his job performance; townsfolk either fear him or hold him in contempt, and his new romantic relationship with the very Christian Sam (Plimpton) is motivated by a thirst as much for redemption as for her. Gass-Donnelly has set up an almost classically symbolic dichotomy between the light, blonde Sam and the dark, sexy, “bad” Rita who, post-Walter, has taken up with the creepy Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre); Walter’s soul and libido are clearly at war, engaged in a dialectic between a Manichean worldview and the shades of gray that decorate Walter’s conscience.
A call has come in about a young woman’s body dumped at a local landfill, and it turns out Rita made the call. It also seems that Steve, who never misses an opportunity to bait Walter about Rita, was seen throwing something off his truck, just about the time the body turned up. Does Walter want Steve convicted, regardless of the circumstances? What would Jesus do?
The veteran Stormare, who must have gained 50 pounds to play Walter, is spot-on — taciturn, tortured and Teutonic. Plimpton is typically first-rate, and has a terrific scene in which Sam confronts a local gossip that’s a perfectly calibrated emotional explosion. Hennessy doesn’t have enough to do, but is excellent in her time onscreen.
Tech credits are first-rate, notably the music and the work of d.p. Brendan Steacy.