Small Town Murder Songs, written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, is one of those modestly scaled films that is both wise to not to extend its reach beyond its grasp, yet shoots itself in the foot by over-limiting its scope. At a lean 76 minutes (six of which are credits), it's great that this is not another in an increasingly long line of ideas that would sustain a 50-minute short unnaturally stretched to feature length. Still, there are intriguing fringes around Gass-Donnelly's characters that he doesn't trim away, and the film seems like it would be more satisfying if he had colored them in a little further.
Walter (Peter Stormare) is a quiet man, living the quiet life as the sheriff of a quiet town. And as they almost always are in movies, he's harboring a deep regret over a violent fight between himself and another resident named Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), likely over the affections of Rita (Jill Hennessy), once Walter's girlfriend, now Steve's. Walter has turned to faith to help fight off his anger, and things are going smoothly until a dead body turns up near the local lake, and it looks as if Steve may be the culprit.
Stormare plays Walter as if Walter feels he can keep all of his emotions in just by remaining still and quiet. Less regretful than ashamed, Walter's lip doesn't wobble when his brother and father are cold to him, but his heartbreak is palpable. Likewise, in one of the first scenes, Walter is baptized, but Walter's reaction is less like he feels cleansed and more like he's trying to convince himself. The fact that the town holds his big blow-up against him, and that his history with Steve and Rita threaten to ruin his investigation only adds to his spiral from reason to emotion.
Although Walter's emotional state is the driving force behind the picture, writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly plays it too safe in refusing to turn the spotlight on anyone else. Obvious areas that could be expanded are the three characters who are closest to Walter: his girlfriend, Sam (Martha Plimpton); his partner, Jim (Aaron Poole); and, of course, Rita. Gass-Donnelly never shows us any of his relationship with Rita and what he lost when she left, which leaves his regret over losing her somewhat muted, and although we get glimpses into his relationships with Sam and Jim, they're only fleeting. A fight between Walter and Sam feels like the beginning of a thread that lacks an end, and scenes with Jim's family are too-brief peeks into the way he and his family deal with the crisis.
In the end, Gass-Donnelly finds a satisfying and original conclusion that feels right for Walter and the movie, but his reluctance to make the movie more than it is, even across his few characters, turns the success into a double or a powerful single rather than a home run. This is a film about how Walter's actions towards others affect him, but it needs more of how others affect Walter's actions.
Monterey Media's DVD of Small Town Murder Songs has fairly nice art weighed down by scads and scads of text, from numerous critics and film festivals. The disc comes in a standard, plastic-reducing eco-LITE case, and there is no chapter insert.
The Video and Audio
Small Town Murder Songs is saddled with a lacking 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. It looks like the film's contrast has been intentionally tweaked to give the film brighter whites and deeper blacks, but the DVD struggles with the blacks, crushing all detail in suits and cop uniforms that aren't bathed in direct light. Like another film I just reviewed, there's an entire scene where characters can't even be seen through the darkness, and another, major scene is almost blotted out. Garish hints of edge enhancement also rear their head in the form of edge haloes, and the entire image is lacking in detail, both from basic film-on-DVD fuzziness and the limitations of whatever source was used for the transfer (edges often have display a digital jaggedness, including the film's occasional burned-in yellow subtitles).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fares a little better, boasting a good use of the surrounds when it comes to the film's various "white noise" backgrounds of streets and construction, and the loud, enthusiastic church music that plays in several scenes. No subtitles or captions are included.
Four letterboxed deleted scenes (1:28, 1:28, 0:36, and 2:23) are the only video extras on the disc. The first one shows Walter and Jim fishing on the lake, where they notice Steve driving up to the shore. The layout of the scene, had it remained included, might've raised an eyebrow as to why Walter doesn't poke around and see what Steve is doing. The second, a brief extension of a conversation between Jim and his wife, probably could've remained in. The last two are amusing and interesting, but the second is a fairly massive detour from the story, and is probably better off cut out.
Trailers for How to Be a Serial Killer, Winter of Frozen Dreams and Road to Nowhere play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Small Town Murder Songs is also included. You can also put the disc in a computer and download a song by Bruce Peninsula called "Steamroller."
Small Town Murder Songs is worth a look -- on the strengths of the film itself, it's recommended -- but don't be surprised you find yourself wanting a little more from the movie, the PQ, and the extras once the credits roll.
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