Who raped and killed the girl whose body is found by the lake near a rural Ontario community? And who was she? At first, these questions appear to be pivotal to “Small Town Murder Songs,” the riveting new film by Ed Gass-Donnelly. But are they? The police investigation is led by Walter (Peter Stormare), the troubled local police chief in this small Mennonite farming town. As the investigation unfolds Walter enters a labyrinth of religious repression and self-doubt that threaten everything he believes.
The opening scene introduces a quartet of characters that emerge in a tragic tableau; if at first cryptic, the subsequent plot reveals a complex interpersonal geometry. We learn that Walter had an affair with Rita (Jill Hennessy), who notified police when her thuggish boyfriend (Stephen Eric McIntyre) found the dead girl’s body. Walter now lives with Sam, a decent, God-fearing waitress (played by a luminous Martha Plimpton). As the murder investigation develops, Walter is pressured by all facets of the community: the provincial police, the townspeople, his Mennonite father and brother (who won’t forgive his questionable past), and Rita, who shuts him out completely. Before long, the duress pushes Walter to the edges of his sanity.
The terrific music, pumped up to dramatic effect, acts as the chorus in this disturbing drama. The film is divided into evangelical chapters (including the ominously titled “Repent and profess your faith”) which illustrate the weight of Christianity upon both Walter and his community. Brendan Steacy’s cinematography, a small but pitch-perfect performance from the wonderful Jackie Burroughs and the inimitable Peter Stormare in one of his strongest performances to date all conspire to make “Small Town Murder Songs” a devilishly good film. [Synopsis courtesy of Martin Bilodeau/Toronto International Film Festival]
In 1872, John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) retires as a gunfighter and returns to his hometown of Fowler, Wyoming in hope of repairing his relationship with his estranged father, Reverend Clayton (Donald Sutherland). However, he soon learns that the town is in turmoil, as the railroad will be coming through the area and a criminal gang is terrorizing ranchers who refuse to sell their land. John Henry is the only one who can stop them, but his father does not want his son to return to a life of violence.