Believe it or not, John Hawkes has never been in a Coen brothers film. Or a Quentin Tarantino film, for that matter. He’s played a small-time private investigator in an ill-fitting suit, though, and he’s been in a couple of movies with Robert Forster, both of which come pretty close. (Both of those things happened previously in the same film, the 2016 35mm stunt/throwback noir Too Late.) Hawkes returns to that same well for his newest film, Small Town Crime, an amiable crime dramedy from a more under-the-radar pair of filmmaking brothers, Ian and Eshom Nelms.
Hawkes stars as Mike Kendall, the town drunk of a small Utah community who’s fallen into a deep pit of whiskey and self-pity more than two years after losing his job on the local police force. (Those troubled by Sam Rockwell’s character’s arc in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be relieved to note that Mike got fired for being drunk on the job, not police brutality.) Mike is months behind on his mortgage and would have been kicked out of his house by now if it hadn’t been for his adoptive sister, Kelly (Octavia Spencer, fed up), and her husband (Anthony Anderson, everyman) loaning him money.
Then Mike wakes up one morning after a bender in a field full of garbage, where he discovers the badly beaten body of a young woman who dies shortly after he rushes her to the ER in his dusty vintage muscle car. Seeing an opportunity for redemption, Mike soon turns his interest in the woman into a full-blown personal obsession, as he goes around town asking questions that lead him first to the young woman’s grandfather (Robert Forster)—a typically suave Forster character with typically unexpected skill with a sniper rifle—and then to her pimp, who goes by the nickname of Mood (Clifton Collins Jr.).
What follows is a series of events so familiar that they leapfrog right over cliché and land in the realm of “classic,” a search for a seemingly good girl caught up with some very bad men that wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip Marlowe novel, were it not for a plot point involving the dead girl’s cellphone. The torrid small-town underworld of mouthy teenage sex workers and their salt-of-the-earth pimps who Mike uncovers in his investigation is less than progressive in its gender politics (the film falls well short of passing the Bechdel test), but is generally restrained enough to avoid overt offense.
More distasteful are the screenplay’s occasional detours into ersatz idol worship, like a monologue about bald eagles that slides a little too far into Tarantino territory and the Coen brothers-lite characterizations of secondary criminal characters, particularly that of Mood. (The bad Mexican accent and streetwise dialogue is painful enough, but it’s the custom purple Mustang that really pushes his character over the edge.) When it’s not trying too hard, though, Small Town Crime is strangely comforting in its predictability, anchored by Hawkes’ effortless embodiment of a world-weary loser drinking in his last chance like the dregs of so many beer bottles.
Small Town Crime has been somewhat unjustly tossed onto the January scrap heap of misbegotten studio garbage. Although it’s not distinctive enough for awards season, with its strong cast and solid, unshowy behind-the-camera craft, this film could have worked as a March or April limited-release programmer. In short, it’s a classic “B” movie—not in the sense of lobster men from Mars or sorority row slashers, but in the way it combines familiar character actors and familiar story elements to produce a sufficiently satisfying, if not especially memorable, film perfect for whiling away a rainy afternoon.