Small Town Crime
2017, R, 91 min. Directed by Eshom Helms, Ian Helms. Starring John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Dale Dickey.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 19, 2018
A wiry, hungover washout (Hawkes) opens his garage door, only to see his car parked over the debris of his white picket fence. His lack of surprise shows that ex-cop Mike Kendall is OK with hitting rock bottom.
The burnt-out detective has been a mainstay of cinema since the early talkies, but they normally made their homes in the big coastal cities. Not Kendall, hanging around the same small town from whose force he was bounced after a drunken stop goes horribly wrong. But his inner cop comes back when he finds a dying girl, dumped by the side of the road.
This is classic gumshoe work from the rough side of town: drinkers, pimps, hookers, hitmen, surly cops, property deals, and a glorious cameo by neo-noir mainstay Forster as an enraged grandfather. There’s even a sense in which every character knows they are playing the part, such as a delicious exchange between Kendall and low-level thug Mood (Collins Jr.) about re-enforcing stereotypes through musical choices. Writer/director brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms have a deft knack for revitalizing these tropes and for low-key violence, as well as an ear for laconic dialogue that still carries shades of character ("Are you drunk?" one scumbag asks a soused Kendall, who dryly responds, "I'm comfortable"). They also appreciate that the small-town environment gives them a degree of narrative leeway: What would seem like plausibility-stretching coincidence in L.A. or New York makes sense in a place where everyone knows everyone else, and the cop went to school with the high school baseball hero who now runs his favorite dive bar. It’s a simple conceit that they carry off effortlessly and with a deadbeat charm.
Of course, the curved backbone of the piece is Hawkes as Kendall, and it’s another masterful performance from one of the great character actors working today. Bleary-eyed, pouring himself into his ill-fitting suit from his days behind the shield, he can’t help himself from trying to do good, any more than he can help himself from heading to the bar after an AA meeting. Kendall is a close kin to another of Hawkes’ doomed drunkards, Samson from 2015’s fractured narrative noir Too Late, but with less of a chip on his shoulder, and more inadvertent charm.
"Franchise" has become a bit of a dirty word in cinema, reserved only for mega-properties with unlimited spin-offs and sequels dripping with merchandising opportunities. But Small Town Crime is so engrossing in its optimistic darkness that it screams for the further pulpy adventures of Mike Kendall. Hawkes imbues him with the beat-down appeal of a Sam Spade or a Jim Rockford. The actor makes an unlikely action star, but that’s what makes a great underdog detective. There's an air of desperation and amiability that follows him, explaining his tumultuous but tight relationship with his sister (Spencer, wonderfully grounded as the embodiment of loving exasperation) and brother-in-law (Anderson, immediately likable as ever). He’s a screw-up, but a likable screw-up, and if he ever hangs the private eye shingle up again, we should all be knocking on his door.