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SMALL TOWN CRIME (2017) review

January 29, 2018

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written by: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms
produced by: Parisa Caviani, Brad Johnson and John J. Kelly
directed by: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms
rated:  R (for strong violence, language and some sexual references)
runtime: 91 min.
U.S. release date: January 19, 2018 (limited, Amazon, iTunes & VOD)

 

I’m gonna go ahead and dive straight into a comic book geek reference here in describing “Small Town Crime” and say that this film is like a Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips story come to life. The work from siblings filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms, who wrote and directed this feature, reminded me of the kind of pulpy noir like Criminal, The Fade Out and Kill or Be Killed  that writer/artist is known for. Like their books, the story here follows an incorrigible, flawed and resilient (stubborn) protagonist who, in the tradition of the conventions of film noir, finds himself on an unexpected, challenging path to redemption. This hardboiled tale borders on melodrama and comedy and winds up flipping the expectations we have for the kind of films that come from Saban Films, that is for those aware that most movies from this studio wind up lacking (to be kind).

The Nelms siblings are working off a screenplay they wrote, about a lanky guy ex-cop named Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), a functioning alcoholic who looks like a middle-aged screw-up one would typically overlook. Much is established in the film’s opening several minutes as Mike is shown ambling around his house. He finishes off a beer from the night before, takes off his shirt and makes his way into his garage and sets up weights on his bench and does a couple barbell lifts. He pauses to sit up, vomits into a garbage bin and continues pumping. It’s a seamless scene that offers some initial details of who this guys is, capturing our curiosity and immediately hooking us in.

 

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Mike would love to get back on the force some day, but seeing how there’s not a moment when he’s separate from alcohol, even driving around in his matte black Chevy Nova (a character all its own) with a drink in hand, that would appear to be a distant reality. He has one friend in his brother-in-law, Teddy (Anthony Anderson), who’s married to his adoptive sister, Kelly (Octavia Spencer, who also executive produced) and it’s a friendship that often finds the two getting kicked out of bars or grabbing coffee at the local AA meetings.

One particular morning after a rough night, Mike finds a woman laying on the side of a desolate road left for dead. He manages to bring the unconscious woman to the ER, but he’s not done with her and in no time Mike becomes obsessed with what happened to her. Two local detectives and former colleagues (played by Michael Vartan and Daniel Sunjata) warn Mike about looking into whatever the girl was involved in, but it’s too late. Mike’s got an itch to scratch and pursuing more details about this girl gets the juices flowing again and in pretty soon he learns the girl was into drugs and prostitution and soon finds himself teamed up with her rich grandfather (Robert Forster) and a local pimp named Mood (Clifton Collins Jr.) to track down the culprit responsible for luring this girl into some dark territory.

Mike Kendall is the epitome of the term ‘functional alcoholic’ and he’s the kind of incorrigible character you can still be sympathetic towards despite his behavior, which means he’s just the right kind of pathetic.  In their ode to pulpy noir, the Nelms brothers deliver a story that could’ve delved into the character’s darker aspects, but thankfully they keep the story moving along, allowing viewers to simply observe and go along with their protagonist. That’s easy to do since I couldn’t take my attention off Hawke’s pathetic character as the story unfolds. It’s a testament to Hawkes as an actor, but also to the Nelms as writers. All three balance a light and carefree, with violent turns and legitimate stakes throughout.  Ultimately, the film offers much more than you’d imagine going into it.

 

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Typically when flashbacks show up in mysteries and thrillers, there’s a tendency to use them as filler, but in “Small Town Crime” the use of the storytelling device is the rare instance where it’s useful and informative. We learn why Mike was kicked off the force in a powerful flashback scene that feels like the character’s origin story.  It’s a scene that gives us context without exposition, making it easy to sympathize with the character. Discovering the girl’s body renews Mike’s passion, giving him a purpose and a newfound belief in himself, something no one else around him has. Up until then, we see him dress himself up in a cheap suit and go on interviews only to met with failure after failure – that’ll happen when you tell your potential employer that you have a problem with alcohol. But Mike slowly attempts to shake off his destructive behavior as he gets deeper into the case of this mystery girl, which draws us in even more as we wonder just how smooth his self-chosen path to redemption will be.

Hawkes is definitely the reason to check it out “Small Town Crime”, but there entire cast is both surprising and memorable here. He pulls off the character with little effort and sells the most unexpected moments perfectly, like when when  the victim’s parents, who offer him a juice box to suck on while he searches for clues in a child’s bedroom

There are colorful characters populating the story, many of which are an update of the kind of characters familiar to noir traditions. Some of those characters flip the genre’s conventional characters though.  Spencer’s Kelly replaces the femme fatale one would expected, offering a concerned sibling who’s trying to maintain a sense of hope in her self-destructive brother, remaining understandably cautious nevertheless. Of course, her husband doesn’t help her disposition since he accompanies Mike to his ritual visits to the local bars. In one of those bars, we find employees Randy (Don Harvey) and Linda (Dale Dickey), two lived-in and worn-down characters that fittingly add to the atmosphere of the world-building the Nelms brothers have created. There’s another standout character that almost overshadows the second hour of the film and that’s the bulldozing antagonist played by Jeremy Ratchford, a character named Orthopedic. His bushy beard and dark glasses are a memorable look, even more memorable is his combination of odd menace and quirky dark askewed behavior. That the character winds up coming across like a live action version of Wile E. Coyote is even more of a delightful surprise.

I’d be remiss not to mention that it’s great seeing Forster in a supporting role where he’s actually given something to do, rather than the small walk-on roles he’s been given lately. His scenes with Hawkes and Collins Jr. work wonderfully and I’d certainly be open to more misadventures with such an unexpected trio.

Speaking of misadventures, where the story eventually lands in “Small Town Crime” is less interesting than how it heads there. That being said, the characters and the tone of the film more than make up for any flaws or disappointments, making this sharp and quite yarn quite a surprising and unusual treat for gnre fans.

 

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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