Small Town Crime is a nasty neo-noir with an off-kilter sense of humor that tells the story of an alcoholic ex-cop as he tries to redeem himself by solving the brutal murder of a young woman left for dead by the side of the road. I was totally unaware of this film until I read Manhola Dargis’ review in the New York Times last Friday morning. She had some reservations, but I’m generally drawn to this type of film. When I saw that John Hawkes was in it, I got even more interested. Then I watched the trailer and that sealed the deal.
There’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s all in the telling, and Small Town Crime goes off-road enough to make it more than interesting. This isn’t a great film, but I liked it a lot. It honors genre conventions, but messes with them, too. A key factor is the casting of John Hawkes as the tarnished hero, Mike Kendall. Hawkes is a terrific actor. I’d seen him before, but he really got my attention as Sol Starr in the great HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). His feature films include Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), Winter’s Bone (2010), playing a Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), in The Sessions (2012) as a 37-year-old poet paralyzed from the neck down by polio who hires a sex-surrogate to help him lose his virginity, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). He’s one of those actors who always feels authentic.
Mike’s drinking is taken as a given in the film. He’s totally unapologetic about it, even going out of his way to tell a job interviewer about his “drinking problem.” Which he does after having been offered the job. Needless to say, he doesn’t get it. Everyone in his life seems to know. You don’t get the sense he has any intention of cutting back. Early in the film, Mike comes to face down in the middle of a field littered with trash. When he manages to get to his feet, you can tell he’s wondering where the hell he is, and you know this isn’t the first time.
The rest of the cast is equally good. Octavia Spenser and Anthony Anderson play Mike’s sister and brother-in-law. Wait — sister? For a while I thought they weren’t going to explain it, but we eventually find out that Mike was adopted into Kelly’s family. It’s an intriguing detail. Robert Forster plays the grandfather of Kristy, the murdered woman. She’d had a troubled life, and had been a prostitute. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Mood, who was Kristy’s pimp, or “manager,” as he likes to call himself. Collins is oddly likable in the role. Mike, passing himself off as a private investigator named Jack Winter, convinces Forster to hire him to find Kristy’s killer. Both Forster and Collins end up standing with Mike in the inevitable shootout that climaxes the film.
Another piece of sharp casting in the film is the black Chevy Nova that Mike drives throughout, laying rubber whenever possible. This car has a lot of personality.
Small Town Crime was written and directed by the brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms. I’m sure they were influenced here by Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and especially Elmore Leonard, but how many films of this type haven’t been? I’ve not seen their two previous features, Lost on Purpose (2013) and Waffle Street (2015), but based on this one, I’m interested. Small Town Crime is in the tradition of other blunt and brutal neo-noirs that have appeared in recent years. These include Cold in July (2014), The Drop (2014), The American Side (2016), and Sweet Virginia (2017). I’m sure there are many more, but these are the ones that come to mind.
I was surprised to find so many different posters online for Small Town Crime. It’s interesting to see the approaches that were taken. Here’s the one that was on display in the theater, so I guess this is what they’re going with. The others are below that.
Small Town Crime is currently playing at just one theater here, the City Cinemas Village East on Second Avenue and 12th Street. There’s frequent turnover at that theater, so it may not be there long. It’s also available for streaming via Direct TV and YouTube Movies.
All of the films referenced in this post are available for rental or streaming on either Amazon or Netflix.
An article on Small Town Crime and John Hawkes’ career by Mary Kaye Schilling in Newsweek online can be accessed here.
A piece in the NYT Sunday magazine on John Hawkes and his performance in The Sessions can be accessed here.
Finally, here’s a conversation with the cast of Small Town Crime.
Next up: My recaps of the best feature films, documentaries, and TV & cable shows for 2017. – Ted Hicks