Aug 26, 2012

Hard-to-sing redemption songs

It happens halfway through the hymn, between the second verse and the chorus. Walter, struggling with the key, looks at the white-haired congregants around him in the plain Protestant church, looks at the hymn book in his hands, and drops his voice a step to try and sing bass.

It's a familiar enough scene in congregational singing, though I don't think I've seen it in a film before. The hymn is pitched a little too high or a little too low -- I don't know the technical terms here -- and the singers struggle with high notes being too high or the low ones too low, and they switch, several times in the four or five verses, trying to get it right.

Trying to conform to the voices around them. Trying to find the right place in the community song.

This is also the theme of Small Town Murder Songs, a film which is ostensibly a moody, modern gothic crime story, but is really about a drama of the struggle of faith in the context of a community.


Walter, played by Peter Stromare with a very large mustache, is the aging police chief of a very small Ontario town. Most of his duties have been speeding tickets, illegal dumping, and escorting doublewide mobile home transports through town, but now he's faced with the first homicide of his career. A woman -- "not from around here" -- is found stripped and strangled between a highway and a lake. The news, and the subsequent faltering investigation, upsets the town, upsets the area's Mennonite communities, and upsets Walter's recently reformed life.

The crime narrative in this 2010, Ed Gass-Donnelly-directed film, which is showing, right now, in my local art house theater, is very linear. It's straightforward. The investigation and the plot act as the three, four, five verses of a  hard-to-sing hymn. The drama, the real heart of the story, is Walter trying to adjust himself to sing it right.

He changes course several times in the story. He attempts to transform himself, and to be transformed, and to fit with and be in right relationship with the community around him. Much of the tension of the film comes from the way the chief is always ill at ease, always not quite right with the people who are always in some real sense his people, and yet who won't, don't fully own him as a part of them. He's separated from his Old Order family, awkward with his church, distant from his one fellow officer, increasingly isolated from his wife, detached from the life of the town. Yet he desperately, desperately wants to fix it.

More accurately: he wants to be fixed. He experiences this alienation as his sin, and his sin as part of himself, his "nature." It's the part of himself and his vague, violent past from which he wants, desperately, desperately, to be saved.

The film does all this fantastically, making use of open, seemingly empty rural spaces, long silences, and a sound track of old hymns and folk music of the Alan Lomax field recordings style, re-created by Canadian band and choir Bruce Peninsula. The acting is excellent, with Peter Stormare and co-stars Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessey and Aaron Poole each embodying, in different ways, supressed turmoil and surface tension.

In one of my favorite scenes, Walter is baptized. He stands arms crossed, fully dressed, chest deep in the baptismal tank. The minister holds Walter's nose, and dunks him. When he comes up his mustache is dripping and, for a moment, there's a look of rapture on his face. Then he starts laughing. And keeps laughing, in what's either relief and joy -- or hysteria.

This ambiguity is consistent throughout the film, and proves powerful.

Small Town Murder Songs not only gets religious details right -- a rare enough thing -- but also gets and portrays the sense of a struggle that's so often a part of being a part of a community, the struggle that's often a part of faith.

It is a crime story, and critics aren't wrong when they compare this to Fargo or Winter's Bone. At the level of viscera, though, this story is a story about wanting and struggling to sing along to a song everyone is singing, except you.