Review: Small Town Crime (2017)


Like Wheelman, Small Town Crime is a modest genre film that is content to entertain with its colourful characters and well-worn premise. There’s nothing spectacular about Eshom and Ian Nelms’ independent crime thriller—even the film’s title showcases its limited ambitions. It mixes elements of the black comedies of the Coen Brothers, the crime writings of Elmore Leonard, and the punchy appeal of pulp fiction like the Jack Reacher novels to satisfying effect. Just don’t expect anything new, because like the nickel and dime novels you’ll find in an airport bookstore, Small Town Crime doesn’t hold any surprises.

The film stars John Hawkes as alcoholic ex-cop, Mike Kendall, who inserts himself into a mystery involving a woman he discovers dying on the highway. It seems the woman was a sex worker and fell in with the wrong johns. Mike thinks he can piece together the perpetrators’ identity by tracking her pimp (Clifton Collins Jr.) and sussing out details from fellow call girls. One of the film’s great pleasures is watching Hawkes in a starring role, as he’s often relegated to supporting work in film (Winter’s Bone) and television (Deadwood). Here he interacts with other great character actors, like Clifton Collins Jr. as the girl’s flamboyant yet kind-hearted pimp, and Robert Forster as her rich, pragmatic grandfather.

Aside from the small-town mystery, Small Town Crime is a redemption narrative, tracing Mike’s attempts to redeem himself for his failures as a cop, which mostly stem from his alcoholism. In the opening scene, we watch as Mike swigs beer in between pumping iron in his garage. At one point, he sits up to vomit into a nearby bucket before continuing his reps. Later, he aces a job interview, only to sabotage himself by bringing up his “problem with alcohol,” admitting that he’s useless in the morning due to being so hungover. There’s a brutal honesty to the film’s depiction of alcoholism, even as it never digs down into existential reflection.

The film’s central mystery is about as satisfying as its character development; there’s nothing new in how Mike finds renewed purpose in his work, just as there’s nothing surprising about the identity of the film’s villains or the mystery’s eventual resolution. However, there are some good set pieces, like a surreal early scene where Mike awakens in the driver’s seat of his car that’s planted in the side of a ditch and the climactic shootout in an abandoned train yard that recalls the quarry shootout in Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher, although the violence here is significantly amplified from the violence in that film.

Small Town Crime runs only 91 minutes and by the time it’s over, you won’t recall any individual striking images or bask in the afterglow of a seamlessly-executed plot twist. But you won’t think you’ve wasted your time either. It’s an entertaining film playing with familiar elements; it aims for the broadest part of the bullseye and rarely misses.

6 out of 10

Small Town Crime (2017, USA)

Written and directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms; starring John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Vartan, Caity Lotz, James Lafferty, Robert Forster, Octavia Spencer, Dale Dickey.