How strange that two of the movies I’ve liked best and been most surprised by at Cannes 2000 should turn out to be mutant forms of the musical. The Coens’ song-filled O Brother, Where Art Thou? taps into the power of mythic storytelling, the kind of exhilarating power that drives journeys from Homer’s Odyssey to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’sTravels — both sources for O Brother’s down-and-dirty musical drift through an economically depressed America teetering on a future we’ve come, for better and worse, to live in.
The great pleasure of Cannes is having no idea what you’re going to see, and knowing that you’re about to be one of the first in the world to see it. When the picture turns out to be absolutely extraordinary — a stylistically exhilarating vision that also sweeps up the entire 2,400-strong audience in the Salle Lumière in its emotional embrace — one’s first impulse is to wish the same experience for audiences around the world. In short, you don’t want to tell anybody about it, don’t want to foreclose their pleasure of discovery in any way. You just want to say, “When you have the chance, go!”
One virtue of film festivals is that they provide an opportunity for small-scale, unheralded movies of distinction to get discovered, if only by a less than mainstream audience. It’s not necessary that they be great; being unexpectedly good carries its own satisfaction. Small Town Murder Songs, a 75-minute picture from Canada, is the best example so far in this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
Yes, the title’s selfconsciously quirky and genre-bending, maybe a tad pretentious. Somebody getting too smart for their own good, I thought as I settled in to watch. And look, they went and hired that Bergman actor who stuffed Steve Buscemi into the wood chipper in Fargo: Peter Stormare as police chief of an isolated Mennonite community in Ontario. Definitely reaching for postmodern bizarro.
Except that almost immediately the movie took hold. First, there was the look of it. Ed Gass-Donnelly, who wrote, directed, and edited, knows that roads and streets become beautiful and auspicious if you put your widescreen camera in the right place and honor the power of the frame. There’s nothing in this nowhere community that could be called scenic or even picturesque, yet Gass-Donnelly allows us to soak in the ambience and become haunted by it. This is only right because, as one of several chapter headings in the movie tells us, “God Meets Us Where We’re At.”
The haunting also comes by way of hinted-at information about the town, some of its denizens, and the history that links them. The most obscure yet unshakable mystery attaches to our police chief Walter. The once-gaunt Stormare has grown heavier, which works nicely to underscore Walter’s desperation to pass as a calm, stalwart presence despite unspecified violence in his past. Walter is born again and has a new life partner in Sam (Martha Plimpton), a warmhearted waitress with bottomless love for and not a little terror of her man.
Small Town Murder Songs gets his name in two ways. Early on, the naked body of a woman, not a local, turns up at the edge of a pond. Investigation of the crime provides the narrative spine, though not the film’s core. At least as key to the experience the film affords are the ballads on the soundtrack, so integral to the spirit of the place and its people that the movie, like the title, would be incomplete without them. Someone reviewing the film at another festival aptly likened them to a fire-and-brimstone Greek chorus. Reminiscent of the Sacred Harp music in Cold Mountain, they’re the work of a Canadian group called Bruce Peninsula, who should be heard from again.
Jill Hennessy, late of TV’s Law and Order and Crossing Over, brings a fine, dark intensity to the role of Walter’s former lover Rita, to whose residence on the edge of town Walter and the movie keep returning. You see, Rita’s new man Steve was the one who found the body. Steve’s a caution, and the actor Stephen Eric McIntyre might slip seamlessly into the crazed Kentucky precincts of Justified. Canadian film veteran Jackie Burroughs also turns up as something of an oracle.
As I said, the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, and that’s just as well; spells are hard to sustain. Yet it’s big enough. SIFF is showing it twice, June 3 and 5. These may be your only shots at seeing it on a theater screen; it’s slated for DVD release July 19.