Small Town Murder Songs


Stormare and His Score

Main Cast: Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy

Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly

Generally a movie score only stands out to me if it’s one of two things: really great or really sucky.  Once in a while if it’s entirely absent.  Most scores don’t make enough of an impression to register in any way.  And no, I’m not particularly musically inclined nor am I the kind of person who needs music on my life or I will perish.  So scores and me?  We mostly pass in the night.

But that changes when the score is not only an integral part of the film itself but also features prominently in the title of the film.   Small Town Murder Songs stars an original score by Bruce Peninsula that I can only describe as new age, old fashioned aboriginal hymnal.  I know, that sounds really weird – and it is.  But in a way that quite fits the movie overall.

Small Town Murder Songs follows a small town Ontario police chief through the investigation of a rare murder in his town that contains a sizable Mennonite community.   We know from the outset that Walter (Peter Stormare) is not at peace with himself.  It becomes apparent that he has been shunned by his family and the rest of the Mennonite population for committing an act of violence.  The exact nature of the incident is unclear, but he’s obviously a man with major regrets and issues with his temper that he handles by holding himself so tightly under control that at times he seems nearly unable to function.

Walter isn’t alone in his investigation, the Ontario Provincial Police are also involved.  Because he’s answering to them, we are able to learn more about his past in a relatively organic feeling fashion.  He is in a relationship with a sweet, oblivious waitress (Martha Plimpton) but has a past with the flashy and volatile Rita (Jill Hennessy).  His past ends up complicating the investigation and the investigation ends up dredging up his past.

Small Town Murder Songs is not a big movie.  It’s a small character study of a man tormented by his weaknesses and his past, paying penance for both.  Filmed on location in a small Canadian town, it feels like a real place.  The extras feel like real people.  One of the finest and most affecting scenes in the movie features a very elderly woman played by actress Jackie Burroughs who was at the time only 71 years old.  Her tale of a long past violent death is quiet, sad and beautifully staged and acted.  Sadly, Ms. Burroughs died not long after the film was made.

There isn’t always a lot of dialogue to be found here – you need to be able to handle a fairly slow pace and some contemplation of the nature of crime and redemption to appreciate the film.  You also need to be able to deal with the score.  That weird, important score.  Despite it being completely different from anything I would listen to for pleasure, this music works in context.  It’s melancholy with an undertone of fire and brimstone religiosity.  It’s like the score to Walter’s life.  Unfortunately it’s also much, much too loud.  Much too loud.  The DVD has no closed captions and the dialogue is often very quiet.  To then be blasted with that score (because you’ve turned the TV up loud enough to hear the dialogue) is jarring and unpleasant.  It’s an unfortunate mistake and one that significantly diminishes the overall effectiveness of the score and in the end the movie as well.  That score is meant to be a big part of the film, adding layers of tone and setting, and it fails because of volume.  Sad but true and the sign of either inexperienced or very sloppy filmmaking.  Writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly gets great, nuanced performances from Stormare and Hennessy but you have get past that blasting music to feel them.

Though nearly sabotaged by its score, Small Town Murder Songs is a pretty good little indie drama.  Stormare is great as the tortured Walter – even without a lot of dialogue he has presence and his pain and regret are palpable.  Hennessy is brassy and loud and scared, Plimpton is meek and lonely and in denial about Walter and his violent past.  Go in knowing what to expect and you’ll find Small Town Murder Songs a fairly affecting drama.

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