Hey folks, Dustin Hucks here. Quint has been otherwise preoccupied with Sundance, so I’ve taken the helm of Santa Barbara International Film Festival coverage along with Copernicus this year.
With the festival four days in the books, it has begun to pick up a head of steam and toss out sparks of impressive filmgoing fare. One of these gems is Canadian director Ed Gass-Donnelly’s second feature film offering, Small Town Murder Songs.
Small Town Murder Songs is about simmering, under the skin emotion – rage, longing, lust, fear – it’s all there, but in measures. When any of these break the surface, it’s almost a release for the audience as much as the characters involved.
Walter (Peter Stormare) is a police officer in rural Ontario, surrounded by a strong Mennonite community. At some point in his recent past Walter gets in a never entirely revealed altercation, beating someone mercilessly – and thus finds himself shunned by much of the peaceful Mennonite community from which he is tied, his direct family, and former love Rita (Jill Hennessy). Walter has turned to the church for solace, and as a buffer to his clearly growing fury.
When a young woman is found dumped and murdered near the town lake, Walter and his partner Officer Sebastian (Sebastian Pigott) are left doing grunt work for their big-city counterparts. When the investigation leads to Rita being a suspect in the protection of the prospective murderer, Walter struggles between his duty as a police officer, and his desire to protect her and reclaim her in spite of Rita’s clear disdain and fear of him.
Much of the film is about quiet, seemingly normal moments – all with a thread of unease running through them. Walter at his heart, is a kind man struggling with deep-seated anger – and you see through his interaction with much of the town that he’s simply seeking a foothold; some purchase to grab onto to get him back to where he was in the eyes of the community before the incident that changed his life. Some of the most powerful moments in the film are his small, dialogue slim scenes interacting with his father. Stormare’s ability to express the longing for forgiveness, and almost maddening frustration he feels simply by looking uncomfortable in his own skin is a testament to his acting abilities. His struggle with faith, church, and the strict beliefs that define his personal salvation according to it are a continuous struggle with Walter throughout the film – and Stormare handles all of this tempestuous conflict beautifully.
The supporting cast is close to perfection in their understated but significant performances. For me, the standout was Sebastian Pigott, the junior officer to Walter. While his performance in that role is more than worthy, the very small deviation from the main plot that is his relationship with his young daughter gives him dimension that would otherwise be lacking. Martha Plimpton as Sam, Walter’s girlfriend, is fantastic in her portrayal as the saccharine-sweet, obnoxiously kind opposite to Hennessey’s rough edged Rita. My only complaint on the acting front would be Jill Hennessey. While I realize her limited screen time probably didn’t help her, the moments when she was were dominated by the acting talent of Peter Stormare; her television actress timing and tone did not compliment the rest of the cast.
True to the title, the film is very much about soundtrack. Bruce Peninsula’s music is as much a character as any of the cast, and it’s angry, gritty gospel feel is disconcerting, which I think is the point. I imagine the chunky, driving, at times abrasive songs as the inner soundtrack to Walter’s life – the quiet rural setting and sensibilities of his town being drowned out by the sorrow, hurt, and ever-present anger in his head.
Small Town Murder Songs is definitely a winner in the stable of films showing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year.
Keep an eye out for more coverage from the SBIFF as the week progresses.