Review: In ‘Small Town Crime,’ Trouble Is His Business (Natch)

Posted January 17, 2018 11:49 p.m. EST

A genre exercise, the detective movie “Small Town Crime” relies on the usual time-tested ingredients: the boozy loner lawman, the beautiful female victim and the reliably mysterious, invariably competent villains. The directors and brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms have obviously made a study of the genre, both in its old and more recent iterations, and while they’re happy to play around with the form, they pretty much leave the basics intact.

By far their smartest, most inspired move is to have cleared room for John Hawkes, one of those actors who are more often seen nibbling at the edges of a scene, leaving perfect little teeth marks that sometimes give a movie its primary texture.

Hawkes plays Mike Kendall, a former cop. He lives alone in a Utah town in a nice house with a white picket fence that he’s flattened, doubtless after a hard night. He’s halfheartedly looking for work, but all he seems to want to do is drink and pal around with his brother-in-law (Anthony Anderson). So Mike drinks and drinks some more, tossing back beer until he staggers, stumbles and blacks out. He doesn’t seem otherwise affected by his prodigious consumption and, for some reason, the filmmakers seem amused by it. He looks healthy enough, even when lifting weights between sips.

One morning, Mike finds a badly beaten woman (Stefania Barr) near a field that he’s slept in after another soused night. She’s an enigma and soon his possible redemption, a sacrifice to the story gods that lets him play lawman again. With a cheap business card and an equally cheap jacket and tie, he smilingly ambles it into the shamus role, knocking on doors and sniffing out leads among all the yammer and serviceable visuals. Before long he is chasing down a familiar dark tale of very young women and very bad men, and trading patter with both a silky rich cat (Robert Forster) and a smooth pimp (Clifton Collins Jr.), who rolls up with a scowl, pummeling first, asking questions later.

The supporting players slide into their types just fine, though for the most part they remain little more than satellites orbiting Mike or, rather, Hawkes. Even Octavia Spencer, who plays Mike’s sister and, as a performer, can overpower her scenes, never manages to wrest even the tiniest corner from Hawkes’ firmly relaxed grip. The Nelmses don’t make enough of their more intriguing ideas (Mike’s familial history) and end up right where you expect they would, bang bang. But Hawkes keeps you tethered, whether he’s navigating the movie’s uneven tones or peeling down one of cinema’s lonely highways in a muscle car so lovingly shot it deserves a co-star credit.

‘Small Town Crime’ is rated R. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.