Mark Reviews Movies

Small Town Crime


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms

Cast: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Vartan, Caity Lotz, James Lafferty, Don Harvey

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 1/19/18 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2018

There's a telling moment in the opening scene of Small Town Crime, in which our protagonist goes about his morning routine of exercising in his garage. He's an alcoholic, and he carries a beer with him to his workout. At one point while lifting weights, he pauses to vomit in a nearby garbage can. The fact that the garbage can is right there next to him tells us that this is part of the routine. The fact that he goes right back to lifting weights says something about him: that, if he has his mind set on something that he thinks is the right thing to do, he'll continue until it's finished—no matter the cost or the pain.

The protagonist is Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), a washed-up former cop who lost his job after being drunk on the job. A traffic stop turned triply fatal, and at least some of the responsibility rests with him, since he was in no condition to be in the uniform at the time. He was an alcoholic before being fired, of course, but now, it's almost a crutch for him.

Mike gets unemployment benefits, but he has to apply and interview for jobs to keep the checks coming. He intentionally but subtly fails most of them. One woman wants to give him a chance. At that point, he drops the bomb: He has "issues" with alcohol. Given the opportunity to turn his life around, he would rather define himself in one statement of the words that he can't bring himself to admit when it could actually be helpful: He is an alcoholic.

The film, written and directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, is invested in this character's self-imposed state of doing just enough in order to get by. He's an unlikely hero in the case of a murdered woman, whose barely-alive body he finds on the side of the road after awaking from a drunken stupor in the middle of a field.

He is also, though, the right man for the job of solving the crime. He has the resources, knowing how to conduct an investigation and still being in contact with a few cops. He has a motive in believing that doing this will put him in the better-than-bad graces of the local police department. Since we saw him with the weights, we know he'll keep working the case until it's finished, because it's the right thing to do.

Most importantly, he has nothing better to do. He may be a failure, but being the kind of failure that Mike is takes a lot of work. If he can put even half the effort that he puts into doing nothing into this case, it's almost certain to be solved. His sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer), whose family adopted Mike when he was a kid, wishes her brother would put that much effort into cleaning himself up. If anything, it would mean that she and her husband (played by Anthony Anderson) wouldn't have to keep paying off his mortgage.

Much of the character's appeal and depth comes from Hawkes' performance. It's the opposite of showy. He plays Mike with the sort of lived-in and lived-too-long-in-this-condition experience that seems laid back or almost apathetic. Mike isn't bored or tired, but he seems simply to exist—nothing more and nothing less. While he may be drunk most of the time, that appears to help his state of just being. Behind that exterior, though, Hawkes gives the impression of a man whose mind is always working—at least when it's not blacked out from drinking too much. Mike is always looking for angle, whether it's to scam the unemployment office without doing anything illegal or trying to maneuver his way back into his job.

The story proper begins with the discovery of the woman in the field. Mike brings her to the hospital, but the next day, calling the hospital to arrange to bring her cellphone and some flowers to the woman, he learns that she has died. Pretending to be the older brother of one of the woman's high school boyfriends, Mike meets with her parents, who chalk up their daughter's death to her lifestyle choices—sex work and drug addiction. The woman's grandfather Steve (Robert Forester), though, hires Mike, who claims to be a licensed private investigator, to find his granddaughter's killer.

The investigation leads him to no small amount of crime and corruption in this small California town. A local bartender (played by Don Harvey) arranges sex for visiting businessmen. A drug dealer and pimp named Mood (Clifton Collins Jr.) seems like a good suspect, except that the loss of the mysterious woman and another of his sex workers is more than an injury to his business. A pair of sociopathic killers is in town, too, cleaning up for a client or clients who want these sex workers out of the picture for reasons that, ultimately, are trivial in big scheme of the bloodshed that results.

It's a straightforward mystery, but it's strengthened by a collection of eclectic but recognizable characters, as well as the idea that corruption exists in even the most seemingly inconsequential areas of society. As with any good detective yarn, though, the main character is the key to the success of Small Town Crime. In Hawkes' low-key but substantial performance, the film gives us a flawed man, who could be worth something if he could only see himself as someone worth more than he imagines himself to be.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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