Ed Gass-Donnelly’s feature debut deposits an okey-dokey sheriff with a murky past and capacity for mayhem in the rural Mennonite community of Conestoga Lake, Ontario, whose vast prairies render every passing pedestrian vulnerable to the wrath of God. Walter (Peter Stormare) is bear-like, middle-aged, his rage bottled and sealed by an exterior that could be mistaken for timidity if you didn’t know him, the spectacle frames so outdated they’d be hip in the city, that goofy uncle moustache. If Walter were more articulate, or overtly sinister, or nursing an urge for secret refinement and solitude punctuated by violent sex, Small Town Murder Songs’s particular thread of portentousness—squeezing each scene for tension and regularly injecting thundering music over the soundtrack, the film’s almost a mediation on portentousness—would seem heavily indebted to Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, but Gass-Donnelly is chasing something at once more diminutive, or short story-like, and more mythical. You develop this cumulative awareness of there being less to all this than is intended, the emphasis clearly more on the director’s stylistic moxie than on probing the psychic depths of its troubled protagonist. And in an industry as starved for personal style as Canada’s, this emphasis will probably work in Gass-Donnelly’s favour.
Walter attempts to find religion all over again, primarily through the love of a good, nattering, matronly waitress (Martha Plimpton). His redemption is interrupted by the discovery of a young woman’s body. The investigation leads him back to his much sexier and trashier old flame (Jill Hennessey) and has him discreetly pointing an accusatory finger at the douche bag who constitutes her current beau. What’s most intriguing about all this is the notion that just because you’ve got a vendetta doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
With conspicuous references to basic instincts and intermediary passages riddled with copious slow-motion, wailing dirges that declare “You can’t hide what you are,” and mammoth titles chiseled into the sky by the Lord reading “REPENT AND PROFESS YOUR FAITH,” you can’t exactly call Small Town Murder Songs subtle, but it’s too enamoured with allusion, repeats its flashbacks too often to retain their needed enigma, and, in short, writes a lot of cheques it can’t cash. Those titular musical refrains, all of them elegantly composed and judiciously edited (Brendan Steacy’s the shooter, Gass-Donnelly his own cutter), are clearly the bedrock of Gass-Donnelly’s conceptual gambit, but they’re so consistently overwrought that only an apocalyptic shower of fireballs could give them their due send-off.
The gleam of pretentiousness cast over much of Small Town Murder Songs never extends however to the performances. Stormare, so rarely granted this sort of role, is tremendous, seemingly never caught without a precise notion of Walter’s shifting emotional levels, and as brooding with his bulky physicality as with his face. Plimpton completely fills out her role without ever resorting to too much gesture or false nuance. She has a remarkably convincing scene where she needs to pray while thinking of the dead girl’s panties. Hennessey’s perfectly cast and groomed here, but has little to do. If her character were given more attention we might have gleaned some sense of what she and Walter were really all about, and since, as the real object of his desire, she’s finally the key to our understanding of Walter’s dark side, her absence is felt that much greater. The undernourishment of Hennessey’s role points to the central question that lingers with anyone trying to reckon with Small Town Murder Songs. It’s very hard to know if this needed a lot more to make it truly resonate, or a lot less—even at a meager 75 minutes, there are scenes that feel superfluous. Boil it down to music videos and you might find its true raison d’être. Extend and seriously deepen it and you might find a satisfying slice of Canadian gothic.
Small Town Murder Songs opens in Toronto and Edmonton this weekend.