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Small Town Murder Songs

Dir/scr: Ed Gass-Donnelly. Canada. 2010. 75mins

Ed Gass-Donnelly makes appropriate, unpretentiously artful, stylistic choices in this tale of redemption centred on a middle-aged provincial cop with a violent past whose will to reset his life is tested once he begins investigating the brutal murder of a young woman. The film’s 75-minute running time and unhurried pacing might be signs of courage in the global marketplace, but may doom it to theatrical play within its native Canada, although additional exposure internationally is guaranteed at some festivals  and for television in a number of territories.

Gass-Donnelly is a filmmaker to watch.

Walter (Stormare) is the chief of police in a small, rural Mennonite community in Ontario. A born-again Christian, he remains, on account of a recent episode which we glimpse in flashback in which he lost control and brutally beat an off-screen figure, an anomaly in the pacifist culture of a small town and surrounding farmland. The crime he and his deputy (Poole) try to solve brings to light suspicions that the locals, and he himself, have of the evolution of his animal instincts.

They speak behind his back, and he is even ridiculed by the main suspect, Steve (McIntyre), a trashy ne’er-do-well who had six months before broken up his relationship with the beautiful, headstrong Rita (an impressive Hennessy, of Law & Order fame). It would certainly be in Walter’s interest to put the interloper away, even if he has built a new, fairly solid relationship with the more accommodating Sam (Plimpton)—something not lost on the police detective, Dave Washington (Cohen), whose supervision of the case relegates him and his sidekick to field work.

No matter. Walter insists on interfering in the case. At first it is not clear whether his persistence stems from jealousy or outrage. Gass-Donnelly refuses easy answers—occasional chapter titles invoking religious precepts and percussive music by the band Bruce Peninsula that mixes gospel with rock and country sounds contrast with the disturbing scenes of Walter’s earlier transgression—but the resolution is cleverly unanticipated. It brings together the patches of his barely repressed aggressive impulses and the quiet scenes of him in church or at prayer. Indeed, the film begins with a quote from Exodus: “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be still.”

Gass-Donnelly never loses sight of his major theme. The Mennonite faith and lifestyle are more suggested than overtly played out. And if the viewer gets caught up in the generic crime drama, the recurring titles (“Live in the world but not of it;” “God meets us where we’re at”) are reminders of the filmmaker’s major focus.

The fall vistas are eerily beautiful, especially in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio used to great effect by cinematographer Steacy. The leisurely tableau structure recalls some of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan’s work from the 1990s; the shots of nature and the occasional utterance of the Mennonites’ German/Dutch dialect call to mind Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht; and, evoking the Coen Brothers, are the presence of Stormare, who portrayed violent characters in Fargo and The Big Lebowski, as well as the somewhat clinical observation of glamourless characters in outsider settings, especially in No Country for Old Men.

The film’s principal failure is to maintain momentum. It begins to feel inert, in spite of a professional visit to a strip club and a bloody climactic sequence involving a baseball bat. A triteness seeps in to the narrative, yet the unusual relationship of soundtrack to visuals, the depth of its spiritual component, and the excellent ensemble of actors (octogenarian Jackie Burroughs commands the screen in a supporting role) are impressive enough to make Gass-Donnelly a filmmaker to watch.

Production company: 3 Legged Dog Films

International sales: Visit Films, www.visitfilms.com

Producers: Lee Kim, Ed Gass-Donnelly

Cinematography: Brendan Steacy

Production designer: Rachel Ford

Editor: Ed Gass-Donnelly

Music: Bruce Peninsula

Website:  www.smalltownmurdersongs.com

Main cast: Peter Stormare, Aaron Poole, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy, Steven Eric McIntyre, Ari Cohen, Jackie Burroughs

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