A look at Small Town Murder Songs, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mob Wives.

Small Town Murder Songs

Based in a town small enough that other police departments get called in when someone gets killed, Small Town Murder Songs opens vast and biblical on a dead girl dumped by a lake. Panties ‘round her ankles and her clothes ripped off about as you might expect.

Movies that start like this while away their hours on the juxtaposition of small town people and big city crime. We wind through a pained course of suggestion and reminiscence, inevitably realizing this too was an inside job, sprung from backcountry incest or drinking or hubris or a tradition of abuse or all four, if you dabble in the horror genre and in rare but notable cases, exorcism flicks.

But in Murder Songs director Ed Gass-Donnelly doesn’t pretend we don’t rape and beat and leave women dead in ditches, that this doesn’t happen here, small town or not. It’s not a murder mystery because we know from the start who killed her. A sparse 70-odd minutes long, no time is spent pretending the dead girl is much more than a stage for the character’s own demons, so in the end with much perfunctoriness cleanly dispensed, we are freed to other contemplations.

So we have a small town police officer - white, balding, overweight, male, estranged from his family and his own desires, embarking on Christianity and anger management and growing old in utter inconsequence - and his ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend who killed a stripper (the dead girl by the lake). If you enjoyed Fargo you will appreciate the artistic elevation of stereotypical rural life, the thoughtful dwelling that imbues weight and even poetry to the mundanities of blue collar work, meat and potatoes, tractors and the small universal tragedy of settling in love with either the best you can find or the most who will have you. An earthy, foreboding, hymnal soundtrack presents almost a second and more noble plotline to the main character’s ever-failing quest to escape his past and temper. The lingering, still-camera shots of the farmlands and placid lakes paired with religious overtones can’t help but stir the urban heart to that odd sense of longing and discontentment we often watch such movies for.

The movie is short and despite its failure to culminate the tension it lingers on, the tension itself is worth the watch.

Available on Netflix DVD and iTunes.

Zero Dark Thirty

I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s first major film The Hurt Locker mainly because of Jeremy Renner, and if you are wondering, he will never ever exceed his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but then no actor will ever act better than they did in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Zero Dark Thirty shows a far less compassionate and emotional side of Bigelow in an uncomfortably long film about the 10-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Mostly the film excels in interrogation scenes of captured Al-Qaeda by their US captors. They are beaten and humiliated again and again in CIA black sites, exotic and desolate locales filled with barb wire, anonymous young men and the occasional camp pet, offered transparently as comic relief to the audience.

The torture porn is well executed and enjoyable. It can be stomached without looking away, an admirable feat on the director’s part, and has the appropriate foreboding nods to Abu Ghraib fallout to absolve the viewer from feeling too guilty about their sadistic joy when the dog collar comes out. The camera indulges our secret desire to see the detainee to go in “the box” and in this regard we are throughly satisfied, while being able to maintain a morale stance as the characters hint to the global outrage it will cause.

Perhaps deliberately, the film is notably detached from the present-day foreign crises and anxieties of the pedestrian American citizens who have propelled it to about 100mm in the North American cinema. Even with its trigger-happy cinematics, Thirty is rendered distant by the short memory of culture, of which it is acutely aware. Thirty makes a point to remark on the morass of bureaucracy and the uncomfortable distance between the President’s office and the mission’s execution. There is a stark contrast between the purported weight of the mission in the American psyche and the small number of resources allotted it. Rather than stirring allegiance with the characters and their unlikely goals, the film is weirdly apolitical and unemotional, too much like our own increasing ambivalence towards the War on Terror.

Feminists have something to be happy for. The film centers on a dispassionate, somewhat sexless, bone-thin high-brow white girl hunting UBL. Her only perceptible human bond is with another woman but there’s no indication she’s gay. She hunts terrorists better than any man. She threatens her boss then gets him fired. In the end, there is vindication of her instincts, doubted and tested by men for years. Ultimately she exemplifies success-as-unrepenting-violence in an inevitable acquiesce to patriarchy, but let’s face it, this film does more than most as far as female lead characters. She is no prop, no sex symbol, and no fool.

In the end the bad guy dies, Go America, and we are not much more enlightened than when we came.Watch if you are into torture scenes, which aren’t we all?

In the cheapseats and available on iTunes.

Mob Wives, Season 3

I’ve been watching Mob Wives ever since it came out. It follows the wives, ex-wives, daughters, nieces and granddaughters of forgettable mid-level Mafiosos, most now rotting in a cell or the ground while the questionable feminine charms of their relations are leveraged to an embarrassed sort of fame and fortune on VH1. It features an unsympathetic cast of Staten Island winos with Medusa-esque faces frozen in various states of poorly done plastic surgery as they wage perpetual pseudo-violent in-wars for ratings and possible book deals, all whilst dragging on tiny cigarettes, wrinkles inflaming on each inhale, nostrils flaring at each manufactured fight, chugging cheap pinot grigio and Xanax even though it’s clearly morning.

We should love to hate this show but instead it is a deeply sad and insightful commentary on loss, attachment and family. Each character is either raised or married into a lifestyle that has torn their family apart with each bail hearing, release, re-arrest, plea agreement, and deal made on the betrayal of insipid, petty, apolitical white collar crime. Each character by very virtue of being in the show refuses to leave the man they love or his memory or his legacy. They cling resentfully to the other women they suffered alongside. All three seasons are but a protracted study in the fight between identity and self-preservation and how identity wins, and how we form ever-growing scar tissue around the worst of our losses to keep them close and painful.

Watch it if that somehow sounds comforting.

Available on VH1 cable and website and the iTunes store.