Small Town Murder Songs is that rare film that feels condensed without being rushed. It defines a community, a deep bench of idiosyncratic yet wholly believable characters any one of whom could be a narrative focus–as if opening a fantastic television series. This “episode” pivots on Sheriff Walt, a man grappling with faith and a new relationship with the loving Sam, a sweet chatty waitress who in any number of movies would simply be a background mouse against which to limn and tease out Walt’s inner turmoil–a simplistic foil, a dull thin domesticity. But here she’s played with a breathtaking sincerity by Martha Plimpton, and director Erik Gass-Donnelly gives her (and her times with Walt) a reflective pace–scenes seem like brief Carveresque short stories, revealing whole worlds with talk over dinner, a surprised flush of tears, the comfort of holding hands for a moment of prayer.
There is a plot: a body is found. A bigger-city detective comes in to guide the investigation, but Walt is charged with finding out whatever he can from the Mennonite farmers ringing the site where the body was found. Walt is estranged from his own past & family in this community; further, suspicion quickly centers on a shady local who’s shacking up with Walt’s ex. All of this is revealed often obliquely, with dialogue that accretes importance, or flashbacks that only slowly coalesce into a clearer vision. It is a film with such clarity in its attention to character that its muting of ends-driven plotting actually enhances the suspense.
But despite all of thse strengths–and I haven’t even mentioned the intertitles’ soundtrack, loud choral anthemic versions of gospel blues by band Bruce Peninsula–what astonishes most here is the brilliant work of a beefier Peter Stormare as Walt. With a thick MarioBros moustache and a round bullet head, he’s almost unrecognizable, and his performance is for much of the movie in his eyes–after a brief moment of joy during his own baptism, Walt looks equally haunted and hunted and hunting. It is a great performance.
As the film ends, just under 90 minutes in, I wondered if the next episode might go back to the deputy and his family (and a great Aaron Poole), or give Sam more attention, or explore faith, or dig into Walt’s family, or… but, alas, nope. The film is brief, distilled, and yet thickly described.