Small Town Crime (2018)
Release Date: January 19th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms Actors: John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr., Octavia Spencer, Michael Vartan, Daniel Sunjata, Jeremy Ratchford, James Lafferty, Don Harvey, Caity Lotz, Katie Cockrell
he world created in “Small Town Crime” is one of desperation, severity, and violence. The characters that inhabit the seemingly sleepy California town that serves as the film’s setting don’t always follow the same mentality. At least not consistently. John Hawkes’ stigmatized former policeman begins as a virtually nonfunctioning employee, causing his obsession with solving a random murder to stay distant from plausible motivations – right alongside his unexplained affinity for sleuthing. His best friend, Teddy Banks (Anthony Anderson), also drifts in and out of a serious demeanor. Even the films’ villains exude curious levity while executing heinous crimes. Despite such tonal imbalance, “Small Town Crime” succeeds handily in presenting a throwback crime drama that entertains with both nostalgia and engaging performances.
After an unforeseeable tragedy on the job combines with the predictably baleful influence of his alcoholism, police officer Mike Kendall (John Hawkes) finds himself out of work and inching towards rock bottom. Subsiding on unemployment checks and cheap beer, Kendall begins a routine of being forcefully ejected from bars and waking up in his car after intoxicated stupors. When the belligerent drunk happens upon the body of a young girl left in a field, he feels compelled to uncover the suspicious circumstances surrounding her unfortunate demise. Posing as private investigator Jack Winter, Kendall begins digging around in the girl’s troubled life to unearth a tale of corruption and debauchery that brings the wrath of unimaginably dangerous criminals down around him.
For many antiheroes, there’s a long way to go for improvement – and oftentimes they journey downhill at the beginning of their stories. But for Kendall, he already starts at the very bottom. He’s disgraced, flawed, reckless, and a lush. He also harbors a sordid past, remains willfully unemployed, and spends the majority of his time being nasty and disorderly. He’s a generally disagreeable character who, perhaps as a hastily designed protagonist, borders on irredeemable. His role might be primed for redemption, but his introduction makes it difficult to get on his side, as if the writers (Eshom and Ian Nelms) underestimated the detrimental effect of having him scripted to be so wretched.
It’s not long before he’s neck deep in a murder mystery, for which he would realistically have no hopes of solving, let alone staying so many steps ahead of actual detectives. His decision to withhold evidence from the police (“You need to give it to the cops!”) and to meddle in official business could seriously impede or compromise the investigation; yet this is the kind of picture that dispenses with likely courses of action for the sake of a down-on-his-luck, unexceptional person to save the day. In this way, “Small Town Crime” coincidentally recalls notes from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which similarly focused on imperfect people striving to adapt, render justice, and move on.
This leads into a strange shifting around in the tone. Opening music by Eric Burdon and the Animals sets a quirky, lighthearted mood, suggesting that Mike is in for some mixed-up misadventures. And he’s joined by an impressive cast of supporting actors, many of whom supply comic relief and serious drama in alternating fashion. As the body count grows, the film becomes considerably darker, resorting to incongruous sequences of brutal violence that simply don’t match the bits of humor that pepper the start.
A couple of flashbacks also don’t help the storytelling. The structure of “Small Town Crime” mirrors the beats of Marlowe or Spade, never really presenting originality, but capably delivering film noir tropes (including second chances, pistol-whipping, prostitution, characters getting tailed and ambushed, gun-brandishing henchmen [one of whom, like in “Midnight Special,” is amusingly out of place, admirably establishing that anyone can be a sociopathic murderer – not just square-shouldered musclemen], and a network of villainy that puts the lead player into predicaments way over his head). The finale is tense, but it too doesn’t deviate from the expected – while also being drawn out for a codicil that is not only unnecessary, but also overly neat and tidy. Nevertheless, the film is thoroughly entertaining – a quality unhindered by its low budget and lack of A-list stars.
– The Massie Twins