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Small Town Murder Songs
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by Jay Seaver

"Stormare, at least, sings."
3 stars

A body is found at the beginning of "Small Town Murder Songs", but the identity of the dead girl isn't that important. This, after all, is the sort of movie that is less about the victim or perpetrator of a crime than the man notionally charged with solving it. Peter Stormare can handle that sort of focus, but it might perhaps have been nice for there to be a little more to the film.

Stormare plays Walter, the Mennonites chief of police in an Ontario farming town. A girl's body has been found up by the lake, and there are few enough leads that Walter starts to focus on Steve (Eric McIntyre), a shady character he saw in the area the night of the murder. But is this because Steve is a genuinely viable suspect, or because he's shacked up with Walter's ex Rita (Jill Hennessy)? Walter may be a pious man now, but his anger has certainly gotten the better of him in the past.

Though it's an invstigation that moves things forward; Small Town Murder Songs isn't really a mystery; it moves in a pretty straight line and there aren't nearly enough suspects or twists to make it a game worth playing along with. Instead, the investigation is an engine that pushes Walter to the next place we need to see him, with scattered flashbacks and asides doing more to explain the path that led him to this particular point in his life rather than the crime he's trying to figure out. Those are only doled out in piecemeal fashion, of course; writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly probably figures that too many specific, clear bits of cause-and-effect would make Walter seem less human and more like just a purpose-built character.

He is, of course, but one impressively brought to life by Peter Stormare. Stormare seems to get the impulses that drive a man like Walter, which inevitably form a cycle. Showing the rage that occasionally overcomes him is perhaps easy, which is why it's held in reserve. The meat of Stormare's performance is in the constant, wearing attempts to suppress it; there's a slightly different feel to moments where this comes from Walter's own shame and for times when he seems like he's been shamed. It's the latter that seems to lead to the moments when he seems to be fighting shame less than frustration - I'm trying to be the man you want me to be, his voice barely says, why won't you treat me like that?

The rest of the cast does a nice job, but they are really mostly there to react to Stormare. Martha Plimpton fills that role most directly, as the new, god-fearing girlfriend too unquestioning to realize that Walter doesn't even really love what she represents. Eric McIntyre and Jill Hennessy do well enough, playing Steve and Rita as fragments of Walter's past; McIntyre plays up general malice while Hennessy manages to occasionally put some self-aware doubt into her disdain. Aaron Poole and Ari Cohen do nice enough jobs as the other cops who have to work with Walter, one a deputy and one a detective, who have to figure out how to manage him.

For a low-budget Canadian movie, it does all right in the technical department; cinematographer Brendan Steacy occasionally finds some very nice shots with which to set a scene. Bruce Peninsula's music (which tends toward the traditional and devotional) helps on that front, too, although Gass-Donnelly sometimes seems to lean on it a little too much - it and the chapter titles are often the main reminder that there's an unforgiving strain of religion motivating many of the characters' actions. Similarly, the crime story is perhaps a little too disconnected from Walter's; a movie as short as this (an hour and fifteen minutes) doesn't have a lot of room for things that don't connect to the movie's main thrust.

On the other hand, at that length it never has much chance to get off-track, either. It's got Peter Stormare and fills the space around him fairly well, which is a solid foundation. It could maybe build a little higher, but it manages what it sets out to do.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21386&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/29/11 15:38:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  01-Jul-2011
  DVD: 19-Jul-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  01-Jul-2011
  DVD: 19-Jul-2011




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