Low-key and unsettling, Killing in a Small Town is an exceptionally well-made TV movie. Its story is told in its title: Barbara Hershey plays a woman in a small Texas community who was accused of murdering her best friend in 1980.With her tightly curled perm and primly old-fashioned horn-rim glasses, Hershey looks, at first, as if she’s trying out for Vicki Lawrence’s role in Mama’s Family. Any fears that Hershey may camp it up, however, are allayed when you see that what she is trying to portray is a troubled woman in an extreme situation.
Hershey’s Candy Morrison is married to Dale, a businessman (Designing Women’s Richard Gilliland); deeply conservative in all things, she’s a housewife whose social life revolves around her church. Nonetheless, she embarks on an affair with the husband of her best friend; when her friend, Peggy Blankinship, discovers this, she comes at Candy with
Candy wrenches the ax away and kills the woman. She is prosecuted for murder, but her lawyer — big, burly Brian Dennehy — pleads self-defense. Based on the nonfiction book Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, Killing in a Small Town isn’t like most rooted-in-reality TV movies. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal has avoided making it look like either tabloid TV or a dreary docudrama.
Instead, Gyllenhaal has imposed his own style on the material; the movie is very quiet, very deliberate, but also very crisply paced — it’s one of the few two-hour TV movies that seems only half that length.
Because we know she didn’t intend to kill Peggy Blankinship, we should in theory be cheering for Candy. It is the achievement of both Hershey and Gyllenhaal that Candy is made to seem so dour and drab and, on some profound level, unfeeling, that you’re tempted to root for her conviction, just as most of the town does.
”You’ve got to show that jury some emotion or you’re going to lose this trial!” Dennehy yells at one point. But when she visits a psychiatrist, played by Hal Holbrook, it becomes clear that she’s so repressed she can’t reveal any public emotion, even remorse.
I won’t give away the verdict, but it almost doesn’t matter: The power of Killing in a Small Town is that it’s not a murder story or a trial drama but a vivid portrait of the sort of ostensibly ordinary but extraordinarily complex person not often found on television.