This is an astonishing film, the like of which you’d normally find in art house theatres and rarely in multiplex cinemas. For a short film – just over 70 minutes – Small Town Murder Songs packs an awful lot into its bleak and beautiful depiction of a remote and religious community in rural Canada. If Nordic noir could be made outside Scandinavia then that’s what this would be… and indeed, many of the core characters come from the old country.
The body of a young woman has been found, murdered. The small community are scared and threatened and turn to their local police chief for support and resolution, even though he himself has a chequered past which hasn’t been forgiven and is far from forgotten. He committed an extreme act of violence which repelled the woman he loved and caused his religious family to ostracise him. He’s gradually been rehabilitating himself, has just been baptised into a new church, and is finding some solace in a new relationship. But he still cares deeply for his previous lover, and it soon appears that she may be shielding one of the chief murder suspects…
The core performances in this are remarkable; Peter Stormare (who you may know from Fargo) plays a powder keg of repressed rage, attempting to change himself by seeking redemption at church but unable to turn away from what he knows is wrong – even if his behaviour compromises the investigation. His interactions with his estranged Mennonite family, during which he must act as a bridge between them and other, less sympathetic law-enforcement officers, are fiercely powerful, as is his sense of isolation as he turns away from the farming community which has rejected his behaviour and wearily stumbles towards the modern world.
The film is punctuated by bible quotes and glorious, full-bodied rock-gospel interludes, backed by primordial drumming. It’s not so much a murder investigation as the study of a man’s soul and his path to possible redemption: will he continue making the same mistake? Can he live what his scriptures suggest and find salvation by turning the other cheek?
Described as ‘modern gothic’, Small Town Murder Songs is visually and intellectually fulfilling, if a touch emotionally gruelling.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Small Town Murder Songs is available from Amazon to download, rent or buy