Published Feb 10, 2011What is most admirable about Ed Gass-Donnelly's sophomore outing is that it presents itself as a traditional small town murder mystery – opening with news of a girl raped and murdered – only to curtail the issue, for the most part, using it to unveil the human dynamics that lead up to a man's collapse.
This, along with an appropriate sense of stillness and patient photography, ameliorates the fact that Small Town Murder Songs doesn't have anything particularly profound to say or much of an affinity for taking risks, outside of the occasional, pretentious on-screen religious quote.
Set in Hanover, ON – regardless of what Martha Plimpton's New England accent would lead you to believe – this gothic, human drama follows Walter (Peter Stormare) on a murder investigation where the prime suspect is the abusive boyfriend of Rita (Jill Hennessey), a woman with whom he's had past indiscretions. This rare brush with horrific violence in a small Mennonite community unearths many latent anxieties and repressed instincts, as discovered while Walter questions various people whose knowledge of our conflicted protagonist exceeds that of the audience's.
Using music to bring tone and additional meaning to lingering takes of small town life and wide-open expanses of untouched environments, there is a sense of tentative beauty and oppressive isolation throughout the surprisingly brief runtime. Furthermore, supporting performances by Aaron Poole (as Walter's grounded partner) and Hennessey (as a weathered, defeatist woman wise beyond her white trash presentation) keep an uneventful narrative invigorated.
It's just unfortunate that Stormare's one-note scowl of a performance and the weak trajectory of continual religious hypocrisy do little to make this standard exercise in tortured male ego anything more than cliché. And if his deterioration proves to be the only motivator of the narrative, why are throwaway scenes at Poole's residence or the diner where his wife Sam (Plimpton) is employed included? It's like there was inkling to touch upon the greater communal response to violence, but no follow through.
Regardless, some impressive cinematography and an understanding of tone through stillness and minor stylization make for a pleasant experience aesthetically, marking a vast improvement over Gass-Donnelly's last outing, This Beautiful City. (Kinosmith)