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Mystery lingers in ‘Small Town Murder Songs’

2.5 out of 4 stars


We should pay attention to a winter murder mystery by a Donnelly. Ontario's most infamous crime involved the Black Donnellys, a farm family massacred in the middle of the night on Feb. 4, 1880. The mob attack became the stuff of legend, provoking songs from Stompin' Tom Connors and Steve Earle, along with several plays and an NBC-TV series.

Ed Gass-Donnelly is presumably no relation. The Toronto writer-filmmaker is son of Factory Theatre founder Ken Gass. Still, his second feature Small Town Murder Songs is alert to Upper Canadian anxieties and feuds. Set in Mennonite country, not far from Middlesex County where the Donnellys met their sad end, STMS is the story of a born-again Christian, Walter (Peter Stormare), a cop whose new-found faith is challenged by the county's first murder in more than 70 years: A stripper from the big city is found dumped in a local field, clothes tangled at her feet. Walter knows the prime suspect only too well – Steve, a local hell-raiser, lives with Walter's bitter ex-mistress, Rita (Jill Hennessy).

To solve the crime, Walter will have to again reconcile his past, convincing Rita to do the right thing. He'll also have to control the swelling anger that has made him a fugitive from his own people, the German-speaking Mennonite community.

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Small Town Murder Songs has much to recommend it. Gass-Donnelly is good at capturing stalled rural lives, from church hymn-sings populated by the elderly, their voices fragile as April snow, to dead-end afternoons at corner cafés, where bored patrons stretch lunch hours with coffee and gossip.

We believe in the characters, particularly Walter and new girlfriend, Sam (Martha Plimpton) a chatty waitress who rolls off her lover at night with meandering soliloquies about work: "Heck of a day, the diner was packed. All those boys up from Barrie making a fuss.…"

The film is also distinguished by a compelling performance by Stormare, until now a demented, sleepwalking heavy in crime dramas ( Fargo, Prison Break). Here, with more room to work, the Swedish actor offers a memorable turn as a violent man experimenting with pacifism, battling fears that he might not be strong enough, when fighting the devil, to turn the other cheek.

Hennessy, best known for her TV work ( Law & Order, Crossing Jordan) is also very good as the still-smarting bad girl Walter left behind. How that happened – why a small-town Ontario cop snapped – is never made clear. In fact, at 75 minutes, Small Town Murder Songs sometimes feels like a spilled jigsaw puzzle with a third of the pieces still missing.

We could use a few more scenes between Walter and Rita to help us figure out, in the end, what went wrong and right.

Nevertheless, STMS succeeds as an Ontario Gothic mood piece, a story of alternately repressed and exploding passion – shifts that are most often signalled by the intriguing, violently shouted folk songs of the indie band Bruce Peninsula.

Let's hope that the movie is a turning point for a 33-year-old filmmaker who is still obviously learning his craft. Ed Gass-Donnelly's last work, This Beautiful City (2007), was mannered and overemphatic. If anything, Small Town Murder Songs leaves us wanting more. If he improves as much next time, look out.

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Small Town Murder Songs

  • Directed and written by Ed Gass-Donnelly
  • Starring Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton and Jill Hennessy
  • Classification: 14A

Small Town Murder Songs opens at Toronto's Royal Cinema on Friday.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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