It’s no stretch to think of the rawboned character actor John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”) as an unrepentant alcoholic, and the sort of man who’d bring that up in a job interview.
That’s how we meet Mike Kendall, the “hero” of “Small Town Crime,” an engaging swing-and-a-near-miss at film noir.
Jack is willing to say, “I have a problem with alcohol” to any potential employer. He’s willing to say he’s “not much good” until he’s had that first beer, that as long as he’s not required “to operate any heavy machinery in the morning,” he’ll be fine.
Even if he’s disguised it well enough to get a job offer, he won’t lie about this one thing.
“There a reason you’re not still a cop?”
Broke and jobless, tossed out of any bar he frequents, he’s so far down the rabbit hole that he’s all “Let’s hit the Dead Dog (bar)” to a friend after an AA meeting.
But we quickly learn that’s about the only thing Jack won’t lie about. He’s delusional about getting back onto the police force in the unnamed small town at the foot of the mountains where he lives, drinks and drunkenly drives his hot-rodded ’70 Nova. He fibs about his prospects to his sister (Octavia Spencer, he was adopted) and brother-in-law (Anthony Anderson).
And when he stumbles across a bloodied and battered prostitute, lying in the ditch, it’s got to be the booze thinking for him as he sees this as his way back to his badge. Although he shares his information, somewhat freely, with the dismissive “real” cops (they know why he was fired), he lies and lies to the victim’s family, to possible suspects, to anybody who takes the business card with the made-up name on it announcing that he’s a private investigator. That’s bound to get him into trouble.
“Small Town Crime” is set in a sort of “Twin Peaks Lite” — a piece of the not-quite-urban West where hookers abound, blackmailers ply their trade, something bigger must be afoot because everybody’s packing heat, and more than willing to whip it out. Hookers are dying and the cops are slow-footing their way to solving the murders.
This is a genre picture that leaves logic in the dust, here and there, but fills the screen with watchable character players, from Clifton Collins, Jr. (“Capote”) as a drawling pimp with a “code,” Robert Forster as the grandfather of the crime victim and Dale Dickey and Don Harvey as hard-bitten bartenders.
The Oscar-winning Spencer gets a few chewing out scenes and Anderson does his usual, light “I got you dog” sidekick turn.
The filmmaking Nelms brothers tap into one unerringly accurate piece of small-town life. You are what you drive. They become enamored of Kendall’s Nova, filling the dead-time between scene after scene of peel-outs and rumbles through town. The pimp drives an absurdly distinct purple ’68 Impala. It’s how the locals know each other.
The climax is straight out of the Old West, or Old Noirs. But the picture’s little lapses — as bodies pile up Kendall isn’t one of those bodies, which makes little sense — send it adrift some while before that climax arrives.
Still, the players keep us intrigued, and unlike the endless “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks” and “True Detective” variations on the small screen, “Small Town Crime” keeps its scale small and its storytelling compact. It doesn’t transcend its genre, it wallows in it. Sometimes, that’s almost enough.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexual references
Cast: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Robert Forster
Credits: Written and directed by Eshon and Ian Nelms. A Saban Films/DirectTV release.
Running time: 1:31