What it's about: Mike Kendall [John Hawkes] is an alcoholic who lost his job as a small town police officer when he blew hot after a fatal altercation on the job. After another long night of binge drinking, Mike finds the body of a brutally beaten woman on the side of the road. When he discovers her cell phone underneath the passenger seat in his car, his former detective instincts kick back in to help him track down the killer. As he dives deeper into the case, his redemption story is met by violence.
John Hawkes deserves his day leading films with a bigger profile but this is a perfect role for the character actor. It taps into his grisled and surprisingly threatening look. His worn face fits right in with the character's descent into a criminal world. If you told me Small Town Crimes was written with Hawkes in mind, filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms definitely have a sharp eye for actors.
Hawkes is surrounded by an impressive group of veteran supporting actors including Olivia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr., and Dale Dickey. It isn't just an impressive group, but like Hawkes, one that fits the steely material well.
Small Town Crime has aspirations of the hard boiled detective stories of the 30s and 40s with modern sex and violence. As a private investigator, Mike Kendall is unsurprisingly no Mike Hammer or Sam Spade. In its more offbeat elements, it isn't quite as sharp as other neo-noirs from the Coens or Soderbergh.
With its profile, it isn't exactly fair to compare Small Town Crimes with these crime classics, but the comparison shows its limits. There isn't anything particularly bad about Small Town Crimes -- it doesn't drag and I've already mentioned its great cast. The film's investigation just isn't very exciting or original. Despite the cast, none of the characters are remarkably memorable. It's all derivative, uninspired.
Where this seems most obvious is with two supporting characters that are often seen in movies like this: the mob assassins who relentlessly go after the hero. There are usually two ways to approach these characters, either as a sinister, unstoppable force, or with a little more humor, perhaps a bit bumbling despite being dangerous. Here, it is somewhere in between, unwilling to push harder in either direction.
One of the two hitmen, played by Jeremy Ratchford, does have a strangely menacing look and demeanor and the film eventually lets him be the centerpiece villain, but it isn't enough to correct the missed opportunity of putting a genuine stamp onto the film.
As a redemption story, this theme is pretty underserved. After pushing Mike's alcoholism hard in the film's set-up, there isn't much struggle once the investigation plot gets kicking. At points, friends and relatives hand Mike a beer and he willingly drinks it -- for alcoholics I know, this would be a serious action that would have repercussions. I don't know if the film doesn't take alcoholism seriously, but it definitely doesn't follow through with this theme in a particularly dramatic way.
That all said, for the early year theater-to-DVD dumps, you could do far worse than Small Town Crime -- this is incredibly clear by the trailers on the disc including such films as Ethan Hawke vehicle 24 Hours to Live and Al Pacino's Hangman.
Strangely enough, the best moment of the film might be a mid-credits scene that wraps up the plot in a fun bit of vigilantism. Sadly, though, if this small glimpse of character was injected into the rest of the plot, the film could have been great.