Canadian Murder Ballads 


Small Town Murder Songs, Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, July 1-7 at the reRun Gastropub Theater; Polytechnique, Directed by Denis Villenueve, June 29-July 5 at MoMA

Lingered over in rhapsodic slo-mo flashbacks, scored to soaring secular-spiritual indie-rock, violence in the Ontario gothic Small Town Murder Songs is something almost hallowed—a revelation of human fallibility, and thus the need for humility before God. Peter Stormare, thick with yearning, plays Walt, the small-town cop with a history of violence, now right with the Lord and shacked up with devout oh-gosh chatterbox Sam (Martha Plimpton), but still pining for raccoon-eyed Rita (Jill Hennessey, not quite as ragged at the corners as the role seems to call for), whose no-good new man is a suspect in the first local murder in living memory. Director Ed Gass-Donnelly bangs his aesthetic pulpit overmuch, even plastering religious homilies onscreen, but he effectively sets the droll routine and minimalist gossip of the provincial everyday in the foreground of a fathomlessly deep rural landscape, often shot in Silent Light magic hour—Walt, raised Mennonite, is estranged from his peaceable father and brother. And the murder investigation, finally so simple, compellingly evokes some rather Reformed Protestant notions about the finite scope of human existence.

In 2009's Polytechnique, violence is also contemplated with a serious hush, like an unfrozen mammoth or some other visitor from a land beyond our ken. There's the elegant snaky tracking shots through eerily depopulated hallways, and overlapping, pieced-together chronology, but in this school-shooting reenactment, with scrupulously accurate details and tactfully fictional characters, of a lone gunman's 1989 rampage at Montreal's École Polytechnique, mixes formal detachment with political engagement and sentimentality. Director Denis Villenueve, more recently an Oscar nominee for the melodrama of global interconnectedness Incendies, juxtaposes the shooter's rage against "feminists" (accurately, and ironically, he characterizes his victims as feminists implicitly, as women studying engineering) with the casual, ingrained sexism one of his targets encounters at a job interview, and the impotent solidarity of a male bystander. But systemic inequality and individual psychopathology seems a weird, diminishing equation, and the rectilinear black-and-white and sparse sound make the wrenching, guilty ironies of survival feel like Villenueve trying to eat Gus Vant Sant's cake and cry soppy tears over it too.


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