Small Town Murder Songs -- Film Review

An effective ensemble backed by a bracingly haunting soundtrack strike a compelling chord in this rural Canadian crime drama.

The Canadian crime drama, written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, stars Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton and Jill Hennessy.

SANTA BARBARA — Considering the crime story in an Amish-type rural setting, it would be understandable to place Small Town Murder Songs in a Witness neck of the woods.

But the Canadian film, written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly actually comes a lot closer in atmospheric tone to Winter’s Bone, albeit to ultimately less intriguing effect.

There’s still much to admire about this carefully drawn but concise character sketch, especially the strong performances and a unique, affectingly ominous score by folk-rock-gospel outfit Bruce Peninsula.

As yet unattached to a U.S. distributor, the film opens across Canada on Feb. 18 via KinoSmith.

Peter Stormare is quietly commanding as Walter, a repressed, born again police chief in a small-town Ontario Mennonite farming community whose violent personal past comes back to haunt him when the naked body of a young girl turns up by a lake.

While his own investigation puts a white trash low-life (Stephen Eric McIntyre) high on his list of suspects, his personal motives are called into question given that the man happens to be the boyfriend of a headstrong woman (a terrific Jill Hennessey) with whom Walter had a past affair.

Meanwhile Martha Plimpton turns in a pitch perfect natural performance as Walter’s current girlfriend, a coffee shop waitress with a strong Canadian accent and a stronger sense of moral decency.

The already dense ambience gets progressively heavier as the investigation continues, with Gass-Donnelly keeping a tight grip on the artful compositions.

But as strong as those visuals are, what really ends up lingering long after the lights come up, is that Greek chorus of a soundtrack, its fire-and-brimstone, gothic-tinged take on traditional and original spirituals packing an unsettling, pious punch.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production companies: 3 Legged Dog Films/Resolute Films
Cast: Peter Stormare, Stephen Eric McIntyre, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy
Director-screenwriter: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Producers: Lee Kim, Ed Gass-Donnelly
Director of photography: Brendan Steacy
Production designer: Rachel Ford
Music: Bruce Peninsula
Editor: Ed Gass-Donnelly
No rating, 75 minutes