snapshot: Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

Canada / 75 minutes / color / 3 Legged Dog, Resolute, Kinosmith, Telefilm Canada, The Movie Network, Movie Central, Monterey Dir & Scr: Ed Gass-Donnelly Pr: Lee Kim, Ed Gass-Donnelly Cine: Brendan Steacy Cast: Peter Stormare, Aaron Poole, Ari Cohen, Jackie Burroughs, Stephen Eric McIntyre, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy, Amy Rutherford, Vladimir Bondarenko, Trent McMullen, Erin Brandenburg, Kat Germain, Jessica Clement, John Penner, Herm Dick, Alexandria Benoit, Ann Holloway, Stuart Hughes, Alyssa Mariano, Heather Allin.

An impressive slice of rural noir, set for once in Ontario rather than the American Deep South and against the backdrop of a community where the German-speaking Mennonite community is still strong.

Six months ago the sheriff of Greyfork County, Walter Ruden (Stormare), was discarded by his lover, a waitress from the local diner, Rita Louis (Hennessy). Since then Rita has taken up with ne’er-do-well Steve Hinden (McIntyre); in retaliation, Walter has been harassing Steve by booking him repeatedly on trivial or spurious charges. And, when Steve finds over by Point Beach the dumped corpse of a naked, strangled woman—in due course identified as stripper Melissa West (uncredited)—Walter is keen to move heaven and earth to pin the murder on the usurper in Rita’s bed.

Peter Stormare as Walter.

Detective Dave Washington (Cohen) of the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) and his team arrive to investigate the killing, but essentially get nowhere. In parallel, Walter and his sidekick, Constable Jim Gooding (Poole), try to take advantage of their local knowledge to dig into the crime . . .

Ari Cohen as Detective Washington.

The narrative is split up into four chapters whose titles reflect the Mennonite influence: “Repent and Profess Your Faith,” “Live in the World but Not of It,” “If Someone Strikes You on the Right Cheek, Turn and Offer Them Your Left” (the one that the loudmouth wing of US self-proclaimed Christianity always forgets) and “God Meets Us Where We’re At.”

Aaron Poole as Jim.

Jackie Burroughs as Olive.

This was only director/writer Ed Gass-Donnelly’s second feature, after This Beautiful City (2007), and the first I’ve come across; I’m now eager to see more of his work . . . although not necessarily The Last Exorcism Part II (2013). In Small Town Murder Songs he manages to draw out of his cast some really quite superlative performances, not only from the principals (whom you’d expect to be fine and dandy) but from the supporting cast, notably Jackie Burroughs as elderly resident Olive, keen to help with reminiscences and cookies, Ann Holloway as a curiously inoffensive busybody, Greta, and Martha Plimpton as Walter’s current squeeze, another diner waitress, the homelier, holier and significantly tamer Sam/Sammy. Especially outstanding is Heather Allin with a small but very powerful and moving role as the murdered woman’s mother.

Jill Hennessy as Rita.

Stephen Eric McIntyre as Steve.

The soundtrack, done by Bruce Peninsula and including several of his own songs, is crackerjack.

As I was watching Small Town Murder Songs, it struck me how well this compared to another, more recent and very much more acclaimed piece of rural noir, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) dir Martin McDonagh, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Clarke Peters. Both have the confidence to let the story move at its own pace and to leave at the end the kind of unanswered questions that real life leaves; both display the quiet narrative power that turns what could have been just another crime movie into something that speaks of a far wider reality. As icing on the cake, both have stunning cinematography: in Three Billboards’s case by Ben Davis, in that of Small Town Murder Songs by Brendan Steacy.

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6 thoughts on “snapshot: Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

  1. I watched this by chance recently when I came across a copy in a charity shop. The cover described it as ‘Coen Brothers’ esque, and that secured the purchase.
    But to pigeonhole it as purely another ‘Fargo’ or some-such is lazy. It has an elegance and narrative charm all of its own. Yes it has a theme that recalls ‘Fargo’ (of the local European-influenced third generation community); but in its religiousity it is more akin to Peter Weir’s ‘Witness’.
    I entirely agree with you that this is a (relatively!) undiscovered little gem – and clocking in at a very agreeable and economical 75 minutes is rare movie that leaves you wanting more.

  2. I’m glad to hear you rate this one as highly as I do, David! Yes, obviously the Coen parallel is there, as you say, but (again as you say) shouldn’t be taken too far; it doesn’t have the sort of distanced effect that the Coens usually create in their movies — the Coens seem to want you to observe their characters and those characters’ actions (at least, that’s the reaction I have to their work), whereas this movie wants you to be in the middle of it all.

    I’m not sure I’d go along with the parallel to Witness. Yes, obviously, they share the religiosity, but Weir creates the sense, lacking here, of a bubble universe into which outsiders and their turbulence (if not violence) occasionally intrude. The two movies, at least for me, have quite a different feel.

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