John Hawkes is one of my favorite actors. From Deadwood to Winter’s Bone, to his music with Rodney & John (formerly King Straggler), he’s on that level where, after seeing him in the trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I’m now wrestling with watching a movie I wasn’t planning on seeing.
It turns out I haven’t been keeping as good a track of his career as I thought. Small Town Crime premiered at SXSW last year and stars Hawkes in the leading role as Mike Kendell. When the film opens, Mike’s been unemployed for seventeen months. Kicked off the force after showing up drunk on the job, Mike won’t admit he’s not going to be reinstated and continues to call the station about being taken back on.
Driving home one morning after waking up in a field, Mike spots a woman on the side of the road and brings her to the hospital. Unable to save her life, Mike goes to the store to buy business cards and comes back a private investigator.
Directed and written by Eshom and Ian Nelms, the cast they’ve put together for this movie is a windfall of recognizable faces: Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), Michael Vartan (Alias), Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me), Anthony Anderson (Blackish), Don Harvey (The Deuce), and Clifton Collins Jr. (probably best known for Westworld but who will always be the lawman from the short-lived, Red Widow, to me). It’s one of the reasons I wish I enjoyed this movie more than I did.
There are beats, where Mike holds a drink too long, or agrees to drive a prostitute (Legends of Tomorrow‘s Caity Lotz) to her next appointment, that deserve singling out, but the movie as a whole doesn’t take things far enough. As comes up in the commentaries [more on those later], Hawkes reserves his best reactions for when his scene partners look away and an AA meeting sees him deliver a great line about not getting, “…involved with a victim. That’s policy.” Since he’s not a cop anymore, Mike is clearly in denial, but that concern for the law is completely absent from the rest of the film. It’s not that Mike wouldn’t fall off the wagon but that he doesn’t acknowledge falling off, like a scene where he gets orange juice instead of a beer, then drinks intermittently throughout the rest of his case — an unofficial investigation into the murder of young Kristy Nevil.
The Nelms brothers know talent, and their decision to bring three characters together at the end makes for an unforgettable team-up. Dale Dickey shines in the film’s best scene, both in terms of writing and elevating a character who’s only notoriety up to that point had been being played by Dale Dickey. There’s also realism in the fact that Mike is never portrayed as a functioning drunk (he swerves on the road) and the film’s shootouts always end with people getting shot.
Mike doesn’t grow, and while the commentaries let us know this was intentional, it made me feel the film came up short. A follow-up flashback, expanding on why Mike got canned, is Small Town Crime‘s biggest surprise, and I wish they’d managed to tap into that drama more. Small Town Crime will always have an irresistible cast but that’s about where I’m left on it.
Small Town Crime boasts three commentary tracks. Both the “Technical Commentary” (with DP Johnny Derango, producer Brad Johnson, and composer Chris Westlake) and “Actor, Producer, and Directors Commentary” with the Nelms Brothers, Hawkes, and Octavia Spencer (who was an executive producer and played Mike’s sister, Kelly) are well-worth listening to, for insight into lighting, transitions, locations, knowing when to use music, and driving a 70’s Nova.
After listening to those, the Directors Commentary with the Nelms Brothers by themselves gets a little redundant, but there’s also a featurette about the cast (“Crime and Character”), deleted and extended scenes (including a scene that was cut where Kristy (Stefania Barr) is alive), and “Devising A Small Town Crime,” which includes a look at the storyboards.
Small Town Crime is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting March 20th.