'Small Town Crime': Film Review | SXSW 2017

A pulpy, old-school P.I.-wannabe pic

John Hawkes plays an alcoholic ex-cop in this grimy detective story from Ian and Eshom Nelms.

In an alternate, less uptight version of our reality, 1980s TV detective series knew no censors. They were seedier in their homage to pulp novels, and more willing to show the deadly consequences of their action. In that universe, Ian and Eshom Nelms' Small Town Crime is the special, feature-length premiere of a series worth watching every Friday night. Starring John Hawkes as a booze-addicted former cop who stumbles across a mystery he can't stand to leave unsolved, the scuzzy-looking pic is a boon to the actor's fans even if it lacks qualities that might broaden its commercial appeal in theaters.

Hawkes' Mike Kendall ends every night in a blackout; starts every morning (around noon, presumably) trying to get back on the force ("It'll take a miracle," a former colleague says); and in between, does just enough job-hunting to keep the unemployment checks coming. But when he finds a woman left for dead by the side of the road, his sense of duty kicks in: He races with her to the hospital, and when she dies, he decides to find her killer.

Passing himself off as a private detective to the girl's family (Robert Forster plays the wealthy grandfather), he learns that she was a "troubled" girl. In fact, she was a prostitute, and her colorful business manager (a man calling himself Mood, played by Clifton Collins, Jr. with characteristic flair) had a deal with one of Mike's bartender acquaintances. Several hookers are in danger, he learns, and Mike might be just the liminal figure to rescue them without involving the cops.

Hawkes' take on the P.I. archetype is not the slightly-tarnished knight of Chandler or the tough guy of Spillane. Jim Rockford would brush his lapel and quickly excuse himself if the two met. But the Nelms brothers put his character through the same kind of wringer those guys regularly endured (the blackjack-to-cranium ambush, for instance), and Hawkes makes it credible that he'd stay on the job instead of retiring to a barstool. Mike does have one reason to regain his self-respect: His adoptive sister (Octavia Spencer) and her husband (Anthony Anderson), upstanding citizens who've been paying his mortgage through these lean times, are nearing the end of their patience with him. When his new gumshoe hobby endangers them, it's a foregone conclusion that Mike will rise to the occasion.

Only one small sore-thumb scene, in which a barmaid delivers a clever little speech too indebted to Tarantino, ever suggests that Small Town Crime has ambitions above its modest station. But that's a blip for a satisfying, stale-beer crime flick that would rather get its kicks from Mike's muscle car and, eventually, from a classic scrapyard shoot-'em-up climax. Mike doesn't make everything right in an evening, and the screenplay nods knowingly toward the future in just the way an old NBC pilot would have. Hell, maybe some present-day cable network could pick up the ball, convincing Hawkes to return to the small screen, this time as star. Assuming, that is, that the Amazon pilot in which he plays a superhero (!?) doesn't take off first.

Production companies: 6 Foot Films, Avva Pictures, John J. Kelly Entertainment
Cast: John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins, Jr., Michael Vartan, James Lafferty, Daniel Sunjata, Caity Lotz, Jeremy Ratchford, Don Harvey, Stefanie Scott, Dale Dickey
Directors-screenwriters: Ian Nelms, Eshom Nelms
Producers: John J. Kelly, Brad Johnson, Parisa Caviani
Executive producers: Mehrdad Elie, Octavia Spencer
Director of photography: Johnny Derango
Production designer: Lauren Spalding
Costume designer: Catherine Velosa
Editor: Traton Lee
Composer: Chris Westlake
Venue: South by Southwest (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Preferred Content

91 minutes

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