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Jill Hennessy in SAMLL TOWN MURDER SONGS (Photo: Monterey Media)

Edited, Written & Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly
Produced by Lee Kim
Released by Monterey Media
Canada. 76 min. Not Rated
Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy, Stephen Eric McIntyre, Aaron Poole, Jackie Burroughs & Ari Cohen

Small Town Murder Songs is atmospherically steeped in centuries-old rural noir traditions: chapter headings from the Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac; Mennonite families praying by a shrouded lake; and, especially, the striking soundtrack that draws on the anguished twang of traditional murder ballads and sinners’ repents. To this writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly adds a contemporary tragic character to stand out against the bleak landscape.

When a naked young woman is found washed up dead in an isolated hamlet in northern Ontario, the local, middle-aged sheriff, Walter (Peter Stormare), gets pushed aside from his first murder investigation by a young, big city police detective. But that’s not the only reason the taciturn Walter seethes. He will have to deal with his own inner demons to help solve the case, which he is personally drawn into because the 911 call about the body came from his low-rent ex-lover, Rita (Jill Hennessy), who now lives with a new (too obviously) shady, smirking boyfriend. The whole town knows what buttons to push. Other than a crafty old biddy (the too-briefly seen eminent character actress Jackie Burroughs), potential witnesses on farms and in buggies see him as an apostate from his Mennonite family.

Walter tries to stay calm for the sake of his new, loving relationship with sunny waitress Sam (Martha Plimpton)—his past struggles with alcohol and rage are gradually revealed in flashbacks. He keeps insisting “I ain’t like I was” (presumably his lack of chemistry with Hennessy supports that change), and the close-ups of Stormare’s agonized face keep the primary focus on what is more a tormented character study than a mystery to identify first the victim and then the killer (with a few red herrings thrown in). After the out-of-towner cop kicks him off the case, the suspense is more between the two primal sides of Walter’s nature than finding the murderer, and Stormare’s intense performance is gripping.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of a religious community with a fervent belief in innate evil and divine justice is greatly heightened by the rootsy songs of Ontario-based band Bruce Peninsula, an indie rock take into Alan Lomax gothic territory. The film uses most of the tracks from their album A Mountain Is a Mouth (2009), plus a new song. The gritty male vocals with female choral harmony blend in with a genuine sacred harp hymn, like the one heard in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and the band’s closing and pounding call-and-response “Satisfied” echoes another T. Bone Burnett-curated soundscape from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). As does Brendan Steacy’s beautiful 35 mm cinematography, which was inspired by Roger Deakins’ look for the Coen Brothers’ films, where nature is unsettling, especially human nature. Nora Lee Mandel
July 1, 2011



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