SXSW: Small Town Crime: Tight, Wry Punch to the Face

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small town crime

Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.

John Hawkes is one of those familiar faces, so often popping up in a supporting role, like in Winter’s Bone or Martha Marcy May Marlene, and regardless of the amount of screen time he is granted, absolutely slays. He’s the kind of actor that cinephiles drool over and everyone else is left wondering, “who’s that guy?” Small Town Crime is one of the rare outings where Hawkes gets to take the lead and while it isn’t likely to make him a household name, it’s an absolute treat to behold.

The script for Small Town Crime has a dark sense of humor that results in the film having just as many laughs as there are deaths.

In Small Town Crime, Hawkes is alcoholic ex-cop Mike Kendall. The type of guy that parks his car on his lawn, starts his day with a beer, and finds new and interesting ways to torpedo job interviews. His life isn’t going anywhere, but as long as he can still collect that unemployment check that seems just fine with him. But when Kendall stumbles upon the body of a young girl it lights a fire in him, setting him on a path of redemption that is sure to result in plenty of bloodshed.

On first blush, Small Town Crime is a boilerplate private eye flick. The drunken and damaged Kendall ticks many of the boxes that we’ve come to expect for this type of neo-noir, and yet writer-director team Eshom and Ian Nelms aren’t setting out to make something that is all grit and aggression. The script for Small Town Crime has a dark sense of humor that results in the film having just as many laughs as there are deaths. The brothers Nelms infuse Small Town Crime with a vocabulary that is a mix of noir and western, with a hint of dry humor that blends beautifully.

It grabs you by the face and ensures that your eyes are locked on it for the entire runtime.

They pepper this wry whodunit with a cavalcade of interesting and surprisingly well-developed characters. Hawkes’ Kendall is the perfect mix of asshole and sweetheart that makes others’ proclivity for handing him second chances wonderfully believable. And outside of a few characters that serve little purpose than to move the plot forward, the rest are treated with just as much care as Kendall.

From Octavia Spencer’s tired but faithful Kelly to Clifton Collins Jr’s cartoonish Mood, the characters are shaded in carefully rather than being drawn with thick lines. The cast fully takes advantage of the luxury of care for the secondary and tertiary characters with a cavalcade of performances that work just as hard as their lead.

The development afforded to the many characters is made all the more impressive by just how quick this flick trucks ahead. The whole thing is so tight, with little time going wasted. It grabs you by the face and ensures that your eyes are locked on it for the entire runtime. Its twists and turns toy with your emotions and despite its largely familiar story conventions, it never comes across as predictable. It reminds of the way the Coen brothers have previously handled this type of crime film in Miller’s Crossing or No Country for Old Men, where the audience has no idea who will make it out alive but can’t wait to find out.

Its twists and turns toy with your emotions and despite its largely familiar story conventions, it never comes across as predictable.

For the many strengths of its screenplay and cast, it does come up a bit short in terms of style. It doesn’t ever manage to feel like something completely new, rather an amalgamation of great films that came before it. That may be slightly by design, as it is positioned as a classic bit of pulpy mystery. But where others like the Coen Brothers or even Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown were able to shape the genre into something distinctly their own, Small Town Crime never quite gets there.

Although, that never takes away from where the film succeeds. While it may not light the world on fire with a fresh take on the genre, it is perfectly at home in this world of bullets and bourbon. The writing-directing team of Eshom and Ian Nelms gets what makes this type of film work and deliver something that punches you in the face while still leaving a smile behind. Small Town Crime isn’t just a vehicle for John Hawkes, it’s an interesting and entertaining as hell piece of grit.

8.4 GREAT

Small Town Crime isn’t just a vehicle for John Hawkes, it’s an interesting and entertaining as hell piece of grit.

  • 8.4
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About Author

Derek was the only engineer at Northeastern University taking a class on German film and turning a sociology research paper into an examination of Scorsese’s work. Now in Austin, TX, he blatantly abuses his Netflix account on the reg, although his List mocks him as it proudly sits healthily above 200. He continues to fight the stigma that being good at math means you are not any no good at writing. I good write, very much.