Small Town Murder Songs is centered on the odd coupling of a kicking indie soundtrack and the somber setting of a small Ontario town dominated by a large Mennonite population. The second feature from promising Canadian filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly (This Beautiful City), the film is as much music-video collection as crime drama: The interludes in which the songs swell into voluptuous prominence balance out a tale of crime and redemption so spare, it’s almost abstract. It turns out to be an uncommonly powerful combination, the investigation of the rural area’s first murder case taking on the heft of a religious parable, thanks to the music, elegant lensing, and Peter Stormare’s fine lead performance.
Stormare plays a cop in a region where everyone seems to share a history. His involves a bad temper, a fondness for violence, a failed relationship with the local bad girl (Jill Hennessy), and an estranged father and brother in the Mennonite farming community. Stormare has found religion himself—he gets baptized at the beginning of the film—and is trying to turn over a new leaf with a sweet-natured waitress (Martha Plimpton) at the town’s diner. The area is so closed to newcomers that when a dead girl turns up by the lake and outside investigators arrive to look into the crime, the men at the farm refuse to answer their questions in anything other than the German dialect they speak among themselves. Stormare faces the opposite problem, tripping over personal entanglements everywhere, as well as the lingering memory of his former self, particularly when the trail leads back to Hennessy.
Who’s responsible for the killing is never much of a mystery in Small Town Murder Songs; there are no dark conspiracies, only dark natures. The tension instead focuses on whether Stormare will be able to rein himself in when the investigation inexorably pulls him toward his old life. Everyone is so restrained, their turmoil buried so deep, that the depth of what they’re feeling has to be excavated from what’s left unsaid. The soundtrack, a singular mixture of folk, rock, and gospel from Ontario band Bruce Peninsula, goes miles toward making what would be an unmanageably dour experience into an acute emotional resonance; the songs are freed to say more than the characters onscreen. While the film is somewhat slight at a fleet 76 minutes, it still moves to its own odd, arresting rhythm.