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The Nelms Brothers have been edging towards the cusp of mainstream recognition for a little while now, and their latest, a well-acted and fun bit of crime fiction called Small Town Crime, might be what gets them noticed by more than those in the know.
Sure, it’s full of recognizable plot beats and some of the weirdness that makes this particular kind of genre exercises unpalatable to a wide swath of people, but the blend of action, humor and pathos recalls something like your dad’s favorite movie of last year, Hell or High Water. This movie’s got a similar tone and, like that crossover hit, a fucking fantastic central performance at the heart of it. Only this time, instead of Jeff Bridges, it’s John Hawkes (The Sessions, Winter’s Bone) who you’ll be talking about for weeks to come after you see it.
Mike Kendall (Hawkes) is a trod-upon ex-cop who loves three things in life: His sister (Octavia Spencer), his bitchin’ Charger, and the unemployment check that allows him to get blitzed every night. And every day. Hell, all the time. He’s got some dark stuff in his past that he hasn’t been able to let go yet, but after a night of drunken revelry, he finds the body of a dead girl on the side of the highway. He takes it upon himself to find her killer and bring them to justice, and in doing so will run afoul of the police, and the crooks themselves, a pair of hitmen who are almost supernaturally scary.
Hawkes gives a truly great performance, like Elliott Gould in Altman’s The Long Goodbye by way of the Coen Brothers. He’s a wise-ass fuckup nursing a reservoir of hurt, and he’s shifty and manipulative in ways both deeply comical and occasionally tough as nails. It’s an organic, lived-in performance, one believable enough that you could imagine meeting him in a bar down the street from your theater. He’s so intensely affable in this role that you’ve got to wonder why he’s not in some variation of this kind of detective story every year, because if Liam Neeson can continue elevating mediocre thrillers to box office success, there’s no reason why Hawkes wouldn’t draw an audience as well on quality alone.
The rest of the cast has a lot of fun as well, from Clifton Collins Jr.’s old-school styled pimp to Robert Forster as the heat-packing grandpa of the murdered girl. Collins is legitimately hilarious, and it’s a shame he’s not in as much stuff as he was back in the late aughts. He’s a menacing dude, until he opens up and you find that he’s got a pretty decent heart underneath it all Spencer plays well off of her on-screen husband, Anthony Anderson, and is a wonderful moral center for Hawkes’s character throughout the runtime. She doesn’t hold it back when he fucks up, and endangers her family’s well-being. Plenty of other recognizable faces make appearances throughout the runtime, each perfectly fine and suited for the film and it’s particular breed of small town quirkiness. In addition, there’s a nice Coen brutality hidden beneath the pleasant rustic exterior of this film, and by the time of the final firefight, the Nelms brothers don’t hold back any of their punches.
Seriously, though: This movie is a testament to how good acting and great writing can cover up genre tropes and elevate the final product above its samey-ness. Taking it at face value, it feels the plot spun the rotary on Morrissey’s “Dial-a-Cliche.” I can’t tell you how sick I am of stories about failed ex-cops obsessed with sex workers who must save them from sheer doom or whatnot. Reading the synopsis, I initially planned to skip this bad boy, but the names on the cast list alone convinced me to come. Hell, it’ll probably be like that for most of the people who wind up going to see Small Town Crime, and they’ll be glad that they did so. The Nelms brothers have crafted a crowd-pleaser on the backs of some truly great actors and some quirky dialogue, and it’s a brutally funny time at the movies.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.