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Review: Small Town Murder Songs (2011)

Small Town Murder Songs (2011)

Directed by: Ed Gass-Donnelly

Premise: A small town police chief investigates a murder that may be linked to his ex-wife and her new lover.

What Works: Small Town Murder Songs is a rural noir thriller like Fargo and Blood Simple and in some respects this is a better picture than many of the Coen Brothers’ attempts at the genre. The people in the film are much more authentic and human than the Coen’s often stereotypical caricatures, the filmmakers demonstrate a better grasp on their narrative, and the overall picture is much more focused and disciplined than the often self-indulgent Coens. Something else that distinguishes Small Town Murder Songs is its regard for its setting. A lot of motion pictures taking place in rural areas tend to belittle the locals by depicting them as savages as in Deliverance or as simple, small minded folk as in New in Town. Small Town Murder Songs side steps these clichés while not losing the flavor of small town life; the setting maintains a rustic look and the characters have idiosyncrasies and other features that complement the setting. and that gives the picture a feel of authenticity. Small Town Murder Songs is primarily a character study about a man seeking redemption from a haunted past and it does that very well. At the heart of the film is a terrific performance by Peter Stormare as the troubled sheriff. Storemare makes a lot of effective but subtle choices in portraying his character. In some ways the role is not that different from some other emasculated and troubled figures in other movies like Taxi Driver but thankfully neither Stormare nor the screenwriter get carried away. This is man who has crawled away from the edge after a violent episode and the story is about his attempts to reclaim his dignity and integrity. The film does that well although it is in Stormare’s dramatization of the character’s ongoing struggle, rather than the story’s resolution, that makes watching Small Town Murder Songs enjoyable.

What Doesn’t: Small Town Murder Songs seems as though it was well shot in terms of camera placement and framing but the quality of the image on the DVD is poor. The film is especially grainy and at times the subjects in the night scenes are almost indistinguishable. It’s never enough to ruin the movie but it can be distracting, especially if the film is being viewed on a large screen. Also, the film’s uses a musical montage technique throughout the film in which Bruce Peninsula percussion-heavy spirituals play loudly over the soundtrack. This is effective at first but it is reused once too often, and the impact is diminished. Small Town Murder Songs is also very short, timing in at only seventy-five minutes. The brevity is nice but the film could have used a steeper pitch in escalating its conflict. A more protracted rising action and a more substantial climax would have benefited the film and resulted in a more meaningful conclusion.

DVD extras: A music track by Bruce Peninsula is embedded on the disc and can be downloaded to a computer.
Bottom Line: Small Town Murder Songs is worth a look especially by fans of pictures like Fargo or Mystic River. It is clearly a low budget production but it has a compelling story and Peter Stormare gives an impressive performance.

Episode: #383 (April 8, 2012)