There aren’t many actors working in the movies today who can make themselves look like hell as effectively as John Hawkes. Put him in a Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or a Winter’s Bone, or a Martha Marcy May Marlene, he’ll find a way to lend the impression of being stretched out and worn down, like driveway sealer trickled over too large a crack in the blacktop. So opens Small Town Crime, a neo-noir written and directed by the brothers Nelms (Eshom and Ian) with Hawkes playing Mike Kendall, an ex-cop whose morning routine consists of lifting weights, swigging beer, puking into a bin, and doing the whole thing over again.
He’s quite a sight, standing dead center in his garage as the door retracts into the ceiling and Eric Burdon & The Animals’ “Good Times” plays in the background: Slack-jawed, eyes caught in a squint, staring at the catastrophic parking job he managed in his own yard. His car is angled partly on green and partly on asphalt, with pieces of his fence scattered about, telltale signs of Mike’s drunk driving. Based on his reaction, he’s accustomed to waking up to chaos and then going about his day with a shrug. The Nelms establish his alcoholism as both the culprit in his professional downfall in the past and the reason he can’t get a job in the present. Addiction gives Small Town Crime its emotional underpinning, something to keep the film on rails as it convolutes itself in the grand tradition of its mother genre.
The setup is simple enough: Mike wants back on the force. Getting hyper-specific, he wants his self-respect back, plus the respect of his sister, Kelly (Octavia Spencer), and his brother-in-law, Teddy (Anthony Anderson). (We learn early on that Kelly’s family adopted Mike as a kid.) Try as he might, Mike can’t get hired, because funny enough no one wants an alcoholic who needs a couple drinks in the A.M. to function. But then he spies a bloodied young woman lying on the side of the road, and he takes her to a hospital, where she’s soon pronounced dead. Not long after, another young woman is gunned down in her own home. Sensing conspiracy, Mike starts up his own investigation into the murders, as all decent alcoholic ex-cops looking for redemption would.
Apparently no one told Mike that nothing’s ever simple when you’re a moral man trying to do the right thing in a neo-noir. We’ve seen this dynamic before in the movies Small Town Crime descends from before, where the hero, or antihero, means well but puts other people into danger the deeper he sinks into his case. Maybe the only differentiating factor here is Hawkes himself, not a stranger to neo-noir (see 2015’s Too Late, which feels like a spiritual precursor to this film) but certainly an actor born to perform in them. He’s an ever-weary presence in Small Town Crime, fully attuned to the tragedy of his life and the effect that has on the people he loves. Mike doesn’t freely admit to his many shortcomings, but he knows he’s a fuck-up inside and out, and he knows that solving the killings of these girls might very well redeem his career as well as his soul.
Hawkes’ performance is about all there is in Small Town Crime worth embracing, though there’s a micro-buddy comedy sewn in here that stars two of his supporting players, Robert Forster and Clifton Collins Jr. Forster plays the first girl’s wealthy, vengeful grandfather, while Collins plays her pimp, whose code of conduct almost lets us forgive him for the nature of his work. Coming together to help out Mike in a time of need, they turn into a colorful oddball couple whose presence the rest of the film would have benefitted from. Then again, Small Town Crime is overflowing with great character actors, like Dale Dickey, who similarly has a limited amount of screen time in which to shine. (Her big moment is something else, though.)
When Hawkes and the angry vein in the middle of his forehead aren’t dominating the frame, it’s beats like these that keep us engaged with Small Town Crime’s workaday plot. But those beats expose the film’s underlying issue: There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before and with better energy. Everyone’s trying here, but there’s an inescapable cloud of lethargy hanging over all, or perhaps over-exertion, so we can’t fault them for lack of effort. You get the sense that they’re looking for something here to invigorate them, sort of like how Mike’s in the market for a quest or a cause to restore his vitality and win back his reason for being. The discipline is worth appreciating. But Small Town Crime doesn’t give us much to hang onto apart from its casting, and from its experiential beer-stained, cigarette-tainted atmosphere.
Directors: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Writers: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Starring: John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr., Jeremy Ratchford, Michael Vartan, Dale Dickey, Stefanie Scott
Release Date: January 19, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.