Small Town Murder Songs, perhaps fittingly named for its punchy over the top score, is a lovingly crafted film, albeit too short for its own good. However, at a brief 76 minutes it’s quick without resorting to fanbook cinematography or stilted, abridged character work. The pace is painterly, detailed scenes slowed down for examination, positioned to bring the most from every quiet town street cleared on a Sunday afternoon, the flashing lights of a patrol car clearing the way for a tractor-trailer hauling a store front; not even the dead are spared the glamour of calculated photography, the cold stare of a dead woman capturing seconds like black body flies stuck in air. Everything about this film is cared for, considered; movies like this beg the question, why aren’t more films loved so?
Unusually illuminative, Murder Songs begins and ends with a rebirth of what ails us all. In place of hyper real and CG distractions, never quite still, caught in flux, the film quells the need for thousand-mile-an-hour adrenaline stories and conceptually superior digital landscapes of near and faraway places. There is no need for such manufacturing here; this film is wide open as if to dare us to look closer at our own visage, ponder, what of us lives there? We’re invited, welcomed through a secret passage off familiar, near side steps away from expectation and supercilious CG flicks and devastation stories. The carnage here is worn on the inside, an irregular fit, that steel wool jacket rash you swear draws blood, leaves permanent marks you can’t ever find but you know it’s there. Death and baptism are in clear view of one another, a kind of beginning and ending place on a small town in Ontario farm country west of Toronto, north of London. Not much happens in plain view and when it does, that dead woman discovered abandoned by a dump, the Old Order Mennonites take flight like a strand of black birds on a wire reacting to nothing or maybe, a change in air.
Peter Stormare is the town sheriff, Walter, a lumbering misfit of a man, once handsome, long since prone to recollecting; he’s drunk on past indiscretions, hung-over with rage fueled outbursts and obsessions with things that don’t belong to him. Stormare is hardly recognizable as the dim-wit murderer in “Fargo”; though he mutters silence similarly, quiet the better weapon of intensity like at any minute he’s going to kill you or ask you for another slice of pie.
Walter is a troubled man, tangled in feelings for a woman not his wife, a woman just about used up her good looks, though she isn’t much interested in his. To make things worse, she’s since shacked up with a bad man, a questionable type, a cruel and curious man with more than a few skeletons in the closet. Walter is charged with helping a homicide detective dispatched from London, but he’s more of a liability than an asset, stumbling through the investigation. Stormare is at once convincing, a wounded quality that teeters between sympathy and distrust – he makes us remember distant cousins, uncles, and it’s as though we want him to straighten out his life but we’re not surprised when he doesn’t do it well.
Director Ed Gass-Donnelly makes every aspect of this film his own, wears it like years of dust that gets into the creases of skin, wrinkles that turn black, burnt colors that never fade. Gass-Donnelly gives every frame something special, eloquence and metaphor, a way of meaning two or three things connected by long takes and a striking soundtrack that is, at times troubling, invasive; there is a sense he does not want to leave anything to chance, assuring mood and pace at all costs. Some will undoubtedly draw similarities to “Fargo”, at least the visual accoutrement of a Cohen film if not the sense of space and grand storytelling reduced for consumption, though it would be too simplistic to leave it there. Like all meaningful, successful artistic expression, there is a given sense of layers and borrowing that informs the work – borrowing, inspired, the fact of the matter is all successful films operate lovingly within similar boundaries, fueling the collective, entertaining the landing and taking off places. One could just as easily point out the subtle breaths between characters, the careful and at times calculated pauses, gasps and gazes – these are the bits and pieces at play, the stuff lending to that the secret passage, the way away from the way.
Small Town Murder Songs is comfortable in quiet places, the characters make circles that never meet then stop, intersect, break away again. When it does end it is not surprising, perhaps too soon but not uncertain. This is a film that deserves an appreciative audience perhaps more so than others with more attention and far less to say.