Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

Small Town Murder Songs is an expertly crafted Canadian noir written/produced/directed & edited by Ed Gass-Donnelly. In the 50's it might've been a Western, and if American could've been set in Pennsylvania or perhaps Kentucky. But it's out in a rural Canadian province that a naked woman is found strangled. Though this film is no murder mystery more a redemptive noir character study of Walt (Peter Stormare) the local police chief.

It opens with a memory of the disgust and disappointment of his girlfriend Rita (Jill Hennessy) to a brutal incident where Walt's violent nature was exposed, shown in a single pan against the fierce primitive pounding chorus of the folk/gospel soundtrack declaring "You cant hide! You cant hide! You cant hide! ... Who you are!" The shot ends with Walt divided by darkness and light shocked by his loss of control. This defining moment reappears and is alluded to throughout the film.

There seems no professional repercussions but he is personally humiliated and haunted by the incident which resulted in Rita leaving him and he is now shunned by his Mennonite family.

"We can't abide this kind of violence, wasn't how we was raised."

Walt has embraced religion and seeks a clean start through baptism. But this is an "old order" religion long on severity, short on forgiveness. "You cant change who you are, but you can act against your impulses … be what kind of man you chose to be."

In this rural town police work consists of small tasks like manning the speed trap where he snags Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), Rita's new boyfriend, an ex drug dealer who now hauls trash which Walt suspects he dumps illegally. Steve has a toothy rodent grin and a motor mouth with which he taunts Walt. "You're no different than you was!"

Next morning Walt is called to Point Beach where a dead woman is found. This is such a shock to their small town sensibilities that a deputy openly weeps. Since there hasn’t been a murder around here in decades a detective from the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) is sent to head the investigation. Washington is a cold professional who views them as bumpkins. When reports seeing Steve dumping something here on Sunday while out fishing on the lake. Washington dismisses it since Walt was too far away to get a license plate or actually identify Steve.

When they listen to the 911 call they recognize Rita's voice, so Rita and Steve are brought in for questioning. Walt declines to sit in on the interrogations as they "have history." Rita alibi's Steve, saying he was home all night. They try to ID the victim and have no luck until they visit a nearby strip club and find out that not only was she a dancer there but Steve was there for "karaoke" that last night she worked. This means Rita lied for Steve. Walt tries to get her to tell the truth but an angry Rita points out, "What? it was okay to lie for you, but not him!" Walt leaves furious but the memory of his ferocity during the incident sobers him. On the TV news its announced that due to a triple homicide and upsurge in biker activity OPP resources are being pulled from the woman's case. On local talk radio citizens are asking "Who's going to stand up for her? Who's going to do what's right?" The next morning Walt's Father who hasn’t spoken to him since the incident tells him, "Well I guess it's up to you."

At work he finds Steve's complained of harassment and the OPP detective accuses Walt of ruining the case and orders Walt to stay away from the couple.

Walt has to take the victim's mother to the morgue to ID the body. The grieving Mother tells him, "If it was a dog they'd put him down. Is that fair? Is that justice? ...or is it just a waste of time? ... Still wont have my Melly..."

Walt feels the pressure and increasing responsibility weighing on him.

Walt's present girlfriend Sam (Martha Plimpton) is a gentle good-hearted waitress. The day before over dinner the thought of the poor murdered woman brought her to tears and she asked Walt to join hands and pray with her. As they prayed Rita and the incident came to his mind. She tells how the town gossip says the victim had it coming, but Sam tells him, "I know you're treatin' her like a lady, doin' your best to find who done it!" This moves Walt to weeping which so frustrates him he pounds the table in anger, which scares Sam away.

Knowing he must do something he drives to Rita's and again tries to get her to tell the truth. She rages at him and Steve comes out hurling abuse, "You're embarrassing yourself! Pathetic!" and threatening Walt with a bat. They begin to tussle and Walt takes the bat and is about to bash Steve brainless when Rita's cry of "Walt! No!" freezes him. And maybe he didn’t listen to her before but he does now.

This allows Steve to jump up and begin to kick and beat Walt to the same folk/gospel song, "You Can't Hide! You Can't Hide!" Walt is now suffering the same type brutal beating as he gave in the opening incident. For Walt this has been a journey of grief and sorrow to expiation. Later in the empty church he's staring at the cross when his deputy finds him Walt muses, "I could've put'm down, but I'm not what I was." The Deputy tells him that Rita has turned Steve in.

The film begins in black screen with just an opening Biblical quote, and sections are divided by huge sized quotes like chapter headings. However the redemption in this noir comes to Walt not through baptism and the institution of the church but through a murdered woman and the women in his life.

Rita is the femme fatale, dark and surly. Sam is the “good woman”, blonde positive, empathetic. An interesting twist in this noir is that Rita shares the redemptive woman function, a role almost always exclusively belonging to the “good woman.” It's some kind of lingering love for Rita that fuels Walt's need for redemption and his concern that she "do the right thing." And he wants to take that angry repulsed look from her eyes.

There's a final scene where Steve sits in back of a cop car grinning sheepish at Rita who glares at him in tear stained anger. He gives this little boy shrug and widens his grin and she turns away, walking into her house. As the view tightens his smile fades and you see that even in this squirrely little noir the loser feels the loss of what it is to have fallen in Rita's eyes.

Written by Mike Handley

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I didn't know this one. I like classic noir, but I'm more bent towards the new 1980's-and-up school where things are a lot more tainted. You know, the media explosions about drugs, porn, pedophilia, suicide and all the ills of the world happened in the wake of the Reagan era. The world has been more difficult since RR, but a lot more interesting for noir. I like all noir, but I like the way things are done better now than before.


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