‘Small Town Crime’ is a middling curiosity
Written and directed by: Eshom and Ian Nelms
Starring: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, and Robert Forster
“Small Town Crime” – “Well, I was born in a small town. And I live in a small town. Probably die in small town.” - John Mellencamp, “Small Town”
Mike Kendall (John Hawkes) lives in a small town, out west in the high desert, where blue skies reign, the ground sports varied shades of brown and snowcapped peaks hold court in the distance. Writers/directors Eshom and Ian Nelms filmed outside Salt Lake City, Utah, but within the movie, the exact locale is not important.
Mike’s own well-being is not terribly important to him either. An alcoholic, he trudges to several job interviews and deliberately fails in order to preserve a steady stream of unemployment checks to keep afloat and drink massive quantities of beer. He has seen better days but is not even slightly interested in returning to them. Drowning in regret remains Mike’s best viable option – in his mind - until he finds a reason to pick himself up.
He finds one.
Mike discovers a young woman – barely alive - left on the side of the road, and he, an ex-cop, vows to find the perpetrator.
“Small Town Crime” is a story of redemption, and it uncovers secrets, marches into violence and steps into noir, even under blue skies. As a noir picture, it visually hits the mark of a modern-day - but still desolate - west. A place that stocks a little more civility and populace than the locations in “U Turn” (1997), “Breakdown” (1997) and “Blood Simple” (1984), but carries that same uneasy feeling: gunplay or criminal freewill could erupt at any time.
Obviously, an engaging story and interesting characters are vital for a movie’s success, but for a low budget indie, these cinematic ingredients become infinitely more important. Unfortunately, the featured mystery loses steam and falls into conventional criminal spaces last seen in television shows like “Starsky and Hutch” and “The A-Team”, but without escorted, cheesy action-adventure soundtracks and with more cursing. With limited options, there is only so much blood that Hawkes can pull from a stone, as Mike snoops around the local bars and looks for connections that dangle both outside and within his reach.
Hawkes, 58, performs more than admirably and fills the screen with his portrayal of a crafty underachieving sad sack, hampered by the constant lure of alcohol, and physically, he perfectly fits the part. Mike is an aging 45. With a slim build and deep lines etched across his face, one can almost visualize every argument, bar fight, drunken stupor, and failed dream throughout his life with just a few seconds glance at the man. Other than Hawkes, however, the only other intriguing characters are a local pimp, Mood (Clifton Collins Jr.), and a bearded mercenary with mod glasses curiously named Orthopedic (Jeremy Ratchford). The rest of the main players - Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson and Robert Forster - are just not given enough to do.
Actually, one other character is given a lot to do, and that is Mike’s muscle car. Although Mike shows little regard for himself (at least at the beginning of the picture), he shows great pride in his shiny, black muscle car. The Nelms brothers show off every angle and several Herculean roars of this impressive automobile, and might one swear that they are channeling their inner “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when a man and his car become – by far - the two most absorbing entities in a noir mystery, a problem certainly exists.
“Small Town Crime” does reveal some fun novelties, including an effective shootout, some visual eccentricities and odd, sudden shifts in tones from comedy to crime, however at the end of the day, the film adds up to a curiosity. Like stopping at a diner on a lonely road while traveling cross-country. A monster omelet and bottomless cups of warm coffee are memorable and the hospitality felt nice, but not enough to unpack the car and set up permanent camp.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.