Tuesday, September 13, 2011

DVD Review: Small Town Murder Songs

Small Town Murder Songs ***
Directed by: Ed Gass-Donnelly.
Written by: Ed Gass-Donnelly.
Starring: Peter Stormare (Walter), Jill Hennessy (Rita), Stephen Eric McIntyre (Steve), Aaron Poole (Jim), Martha Plimpton (Sam), Ari Cohen (Washington).

Ed Gass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs is only 75 minutes long, but it never feels rushed. It is a dark character study of a police officier named Walter (Peter Stormare) trying to put his violent past behind him, while investigating the first murder in his small, Mennoite farming community has seen in years. This isn’t really a whodunit, because the movie only presents one logical suspect – Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), who is now living with Walter’s ex Rita (Jill Hennessy). But whether Steven is the only suspect because he is guilty or because Walter doesn’t even bother to look into anyone else remains a mystery for much of the movie.

Peter Stormare is one of those reliable character actors who show up in supporting roles multiple times each year. He is a favorite of the Coen brothers – who can forget him as Steve Buscemi’s large, silent partner in Fargo – but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in a lead role before. Here, he grabs hold of Walter and gives a subtle, quiet performance of a man filled with rage, but trying hard to suppress it. We really don’t know what happened between him and Rita – or what violent incident has essentially made Walter an outcast from his own family, and the subject of much in town gossip. All we see are flashbacks of him beating someone, but who that someone is, we don’t know.

We see Walter trying his best to change – his baptism to become a Born Again Christian, his conversations about forgiveness with the local pastor, and his new relationship with Sam (Martha Plimpton), a cheery, religious chatter mouth of a waitress, who is pretty much the polar opposite of the dark, sultry Rita. On the screen, bible passages come up talking about forgiveness, and the movie offers several musical interludes with the pulsing, bass heaven gospel songs by Canadian band Bruce Pennisula.

The movie is short, but it packs a lot into its running time, and the performances of the supporting cast work wonderfully against Stormare’s quiet repression. Jill Hennessy is particularly good as Rita, a woman who knows things about her new lover that she isn’t telling, but in her dealings with Walter is quite clear that she hates him even more. Stephen Eric McIntyre is appropriately sleazy as Steve – white trash if there ever was. And Aaron Poole, as Walter’s quiet partner, is also quite good – especially in his final scene, where he bursts Walter’s bubble a little bit. Walter may have gotten results, but he still didn’t do the right thing.

Small Town Murder Songs represents a triumph for a young director like Ed Gass-Donnelly. The mood of the film is handled well, and the performances he gets from his cast are top notch. Now, he needs to press on further. This is a director with a great film inside him – he just needs to let it out.

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