A thriller about the hidden resentments that a murder victim unmasks around them is a perfectly serviceable, reliable, and potentially enjoyably sick way to spend part of a night or an afternoon at the movies. And, sometimes, this sort of story can even be executed with such economy, personality, and/or finesse that it reaches that elusive plateau known as Authentic Art (see, as exhibit A, Laura, and, as exhibit B, the unjustly despised Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). The problem with Small Town Murder Songs, however, is that the film, at a trim 76 minutes, feels overlong by about 45. This is another movie that’s so intent on being “art” (as in, a dark portrait of the hidden heart of man, or some such thing), that it’s seemingly indifferent to providing simple niceties such as compelling performance, plot, and an atmosphere that isn’t predictably oppressive.
Small Town Murder Songs follows a small town cop named Walter (Peter Stormare), whom we immediately know is tortured because he’s seen—after a flashback, or forward (doesn’t matter), of vague portentousness—in a church speaking to a Father in the fashion familiar to anyone who has seen a movie about a tortured small-town policeman. Walter has anger issues that have apparently landed him in some hot water in the past with loved ones, including his ex-girlfriend (Jill Hennessy), and his Mennonite father and brother. But Walter is trying to pick up the pieces and make amends, and he’s even found a new girlfriend (the disappointingly bland Martha Plimpton) who believes in his inherent decency despite the warnings of seemingly everyone else. Walter’s emotional stability is threatened, however, by the discovery of a dead unidentified woman on the outskirts of the Mennonite community—a mystery that could reignite his various unresolved disputes.
The murder mystery is intentionally solvable in the first few minutes, as only one suspect is provided, and that’s a strategy that could have a bizarre power if the film were able to successfully establish Walter as anything but a noir cliché. It doesn’t, however, and you’re left pondering the premise’s thematic similarity to Paul Schrader’s Affliction, a comparison that doesn’t benefit Small Town Murder Songs one bit. A portrait of a depressed, withdrawn, beaten man is admittedly hard to mange, as it’s easy to wallow in the hopelessness without providing, frankly, a reason to give a damn. (A secret about depressed, withdrawn people: They’re sad, but often dull.) Nick Nolte, a brilliant actor, allowed you to see in Affliction the life force that was being slowly stamped out, and so the film (Schrader’s very best) attained the stature of authentic tragedy. Stormare, who has been effectively used by the Coen brothers a few times as a cipher, is a considerably more limited actor who only manages to exude the resolute nothingness of the role.
To be fair, the material doesn’t allow for much more than that, as this is a stiflingly dull movie. Filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly over-directs and under-writes in the tradition of many young directors desperate to stake out new ground in the realm of the low-budget thriller. Every scene is slowed to a crawl to emphasize the pounding doom, while the music ratchets the dread up even further. The dialogue, on the other hand, is the usual hokum that assumes that all small-town folks are monosyllabic busybodies who speak of nothing but pie and one another’s dirty laundry. Hennessy is ridiculously cast here as a trailer-trash loser (my words are deliberately blunt to suit the characterization), but her beauty, which Gass-Donnelly can’t quite manage to hide in his mud-gray shadow world, is the sole relief from the faux-profound monotony.