Small Town Crime (2017)
Written and directed by Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Produced by John J. Kelly, Brad Johnson, Parisa Caviani
Cinematography by Johnny Derango
Edited by Traton Lee
Music by Chris Westlake
Production companies - 6 Foot Films, Avva Pictures, John J. Kelly Entertainment
Distributed by DirecTV Cinema, Saban Films
Netflix streaming (1:32)
The makers of Small Town Crime made several smart decisions, the smartest being the casting of John Hawkes as Mike Kendall. The presence of Hawkes can cover a multitude of sins, or in this case, maybe a handful. Those sins aside, Small Town Crime is probably one of the best crime films you’ve never heard of, but one you should add to your Netflix watchlist after reading this review.
Our introduction to Mike Kendall finds him lifting weights in his garage. This strikes us as a bit odd, since Mike’s arms - although not without muscle - are as thin as the arms of a 1970s British rock star. Even more odd, we see through the open garage door that a black Chevy Nova has crashed into Mike’s yard, demolishing his white picket fence. In no time at all, we realize the person who’s done this: Mike.
Mike’s trying to turn his life around. He’s a former cop, fired from the police force due to drinking on the job and a bad (and drunken) decision that took his partner’s life. One of Mike’s buddies who’s still on the force levels with him: “Clearing your background is gonna be a real challenge. It’ll take a miracle to get you back on here.”
Undeterred, Mike continues working for restoration to the department, but knows he’ll have to seek other employment in the meantime. During one promising job interview, Mike admits, “Most mornings I’m about as worthless as a park bench in hell. I usually don’t start thinking straight until I’ve got a couple of cold ones in me.”
The morning after a drunken binge, Mike wakes up in his Chevy, off the highway where he’d spun out the night before. As he takes stock of his surroundings, trying to recover from his hangover, he notices the bloodied body of a teenage girl in a ditch. Mike rushes her to the hospital, but it’s too late. Something in Mike clicks, and he becomes determined to find out who killed this girl, going so far as to create a new identity, P.I. Jack Winter, in order to solve the case.
Mike attempts to fool everyone (including himself) that he can pull this off and convince his sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer) and brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson) that he’s secured a legit job. Mike is so good at slinging BS because he’s gifted with a sincerity that sounds convincing… most of the time. The reason this works is Hawkes’s incredible acting talent. Most people had never heard of John Hawkes before the HBO show Deadwood (2004-2006) and the film Winter’s Bone (2010), but the actor has been doing fine work since his debut back in the mid-1980s.
To be sure, some of the elements of believability in Small Town Crime are stretched to the limit, but Hawkes makes you believe in Mike, even when we know he’s pretending to be something he’s not. There’s enough of the real Mike Kendall in the fake P.I. Jack Winter for him to sound authentic to those who don’t know him. Where we really see Hawkes’s magic work is when he’s placed in scenes (usually cell phone conversations) in which he’s not sure who he’s talking to or who he’s supposed to be at that moment: Mike or Jack?
Of course it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got supporting talent like Octavia Spencer as Mike’s sister (Mike was adopted), Robert Forster as the dead girl’s grandfather, and the guy who nearly walks away with the movie, Clifton Collins Jr. as a revenge-seeking pimp who drives a purple Impala. (Trust me, you’ll want to own one after watching this movie.)
The tone of the film frequently fluctuates between dark comedy, thriller, action, and gritty crime, but again, the cast largely makes you forget about the rough spots. (And speaking of rough spots, if this is indeed a small town, wouldn’t everybody already know about Mike and see through his P.I. ruse? Again, I can overlook such things if I’m engaged in the film, and I was.)
Although far from perfect, any fan of crime films is going to want to add Small Town Crime to their watchlist immediately. When you’ve seen it, let me know what you think. I’d like to thank Rob Galluzzo, frequent guest on Brian Saur's podcast Just the Discs, for mentioning this movie on a recent episode. The film is also available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate.
Photos: Amazon, Saban Films, Variety, Blu-ray.com, Listal