The great John Hawkes was relegated to character actor status for far too long. That wiry, weaselly-looking fella who’s cropped in all those movies and tv shows you love who you can never put a name to? It’s probably John Hawkes. In 2010, Hawkes received some long overdo attention with an Academy Award nominee for his portrait of an unsettling redneck in Winter’s Bone, helping pave the way for his arrival in Small Town Crime, the excellent neo-noir from writer-director sibling team Eshom and Ian Nelms.
On the surface, Small Town Crime is well-torn territory. Hawkes plays washed-up cop Mike Kendall, an alcoholic ejected from the force for reasons I won’t here spoil. He spends his days slurping up stale beer and his nights getting the boot from sketchy dive bars. His sister (Octavia Spencer…he’s adopted) is over his serial fuck-ups but that doesn’t keep her fun-loving husband Teddy (Anthony Anderson) from frequenting the bar scenes as Mike’s partner in late night crime. Teddy is just as well versed with getting the old heave-ho from the shadiest watering holes in town.
Mike’s world is turned upside down when he wakes in the desert, in a graveyard of killed cans of shit beer, and discovers a girl. Badly beaten and holding on by but a thread, Mike’s cop instincts kick in and he races her to the ER. When she doesn’t make it, Mike hunts down the killer, beginning down a path to redemption that puts him at odds with a dangerous threat. Mike invests himself in the job full throttle, opting for OJ over O.E.s (that’s Old English, or malt liquor, for the uninitiated). He’s not just motivated by a misplaced sense of duty (he is) but I genuinely enjoys flexing the cop muscle again. After all, it’s always nice to do something you’re actually good at.
Along the way, Mike pairs up with some unlikely allies in Robert Forster’s vengeance-hungry grandfather who becomes more than a mere financier for Mike and a flashy pimp named Mood, played by a pitch perfect Clifton Collins Jr. Both bring the comedy in spades, the sheer natural opposition between the two – who stand in stark contract in appearance and attitude as well as vehicle and weapon choice – makes for some of Small Town Crime’s best and funniest moments and the casting director ought to be applauded for their inclusion alone.
Jeremy Ratchford makes for a memorable villain; a sack of potatoes body affixed to a white-streaked chin beard, a scratchy voice and a hearing aid (presumably the result of one too many guns fired.) As he and his equally deadly partner (James Lafferty) churn their way through Mike’s titular small town, the Nelms’ script grandstands, summoning soliloquies reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and No Country for Old Men with just as much grit caught between the teeth. The Nelms comfortably nod to Tarantino and Coen bros, brewing sardonic situational comedy and Mexican standoffs into a tasty, darkly funny stew that crescendos in absurdity without sacrificing character or going so far as to manufacture audience disbelief. When a trainyard shoot out comes into focus, the film reaches impossible heights, offering one of the finest gun shows in a year that includes a John Wick film.
Through it all, Hawkes is a natural, stretching a scumbag grin a country mile, making his otherwise despicable Mike into an endearing and unlikely hero you’re happy to goad on, cheap beer, cheaper hookers and all. It should be a testament to Hawkes ceaseless charm that he can mold a man of Mike’s surface reprehensibility into a character so effortlessly appealing that he could lead his own AMC TV show. After all, it’s high time Hawkes is front and center once and for all. Unless someone can land his character an arc on Better Call Saul. Because that I would pay a fortune to see.
CONCLUSION: A rural gumshoe caper with splashes of Tarantino and the Coen bros, ‘Small Town Crime’ soars on the wings of star John Hawkes who leads an unforgettable cast as a washed up ex-detective back on the case. Strange, hilarious and immensely entertaining, ‘Small Town Crime’ is the modern day dusty noir we didn’t know we needed.