February 5, 2011
Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
English / German / Dutch
75 Minutes
Crime / Thriller
Ed Gass-Donnelly

Peter Stormare = Walter
Jill Hennessy = Rita
Martha Plimpton = Sam

Much better than expected. A small Canadian town is shocked by the news of a dead girl found at a local fishing lake. Sheriff Walter and his deputy appear to be the only police in town. The town is a farming community where trucks rumble past main street, there’s a barbershop and a diner, and a large Mennonite community.

Walter has a dark past involving his temper, though we’re never sure exactly what that past infraction was. We know he’s born again, lives with a simple-minded waitress named Sam, attends church regularly, and knows everyone in town. It seems that the 911 call after the body’s discovery was made by his former lover Rita, who is now shacked up with a druggie bad boy (with especially bad teeth). Walter may be known by everyone, but he is also ridiculed by quite a few. Whatever his past indiscretion, you can believe the whole town, if not the larger community knows what happened. His deacon reminds him, “you can’t change who you are.”

After the incident, Rita left him, and his father stopped speaking with him. A single, terrible violent event in a community known for pacifism. Redemption is the theme of this film.

The vistas are vast, the people appear to be real small-town folks. Hardly anyone is recognizable to movie audiences. The authenticity drips from the screen. Farmers speak in their native tongue, people pretty much act like normal people, the sun appears to be in a constant state of settingness. And though I’ve probably never written this before, even the dead body appears authentic. How do you stop your eyes from blinking and your neck from pulsating? From the bartender to the old woman serving tea, these characters are perfect.

And the music, what about the music?

If the native tribes of North America converted to Christianity, were recorded by Peter Gabriel’s World Music label, and only brought their drums and five part harmonies, the music would sound like it does in this film. It’s mostly religious in nature, many traditional songs, with a few aching love songs thrown in for good measure. And the drums are loud in the best possible way. It is foot-stomping to be sure. The music is by Bruce Peninsula.

The film is broken into chapters with huge text declaring bumper sticker bible verses. “God Meets You Where You’re At” and “Live In The World But Not Of It” or some such advice. This strangely doesn’t take away from the film in any way. The performances are fantastic. Stormare, especially, who appears to be [this close] to going haywire finds the tone between born again calmness and vein-popping hot-head. He is something to watch.

But the town is the real star. Shots are perfectly composed including a double-wide mobile home being driven through the town with police escort. Sunsets, boats on lakes, tractors going this way and that, horse-drawn buggies. It couldn’t have been shot on a soundstage. I loved the look.

My only complaint might be that it’s too short. The stuff around the murder mystery is as important as the crime itself. I would have liked to have spent some more time in the town.

This is a good one.

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS screens as part of the San Jose Cinequest 21 Film Festival on March 4, March 6, and March 11.

7.8 IMDB


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Written by Michael W. Cummins