SMALL TOWN CRIME: The Nelms Brothers Have Arrived
[Published at Film Inquiry] Renowned indie film directors and brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelmscollaborate on their fifth feature film together with Small Town Crime, with the privilege of working with their most talented cast yet. Oscar winner Octavia Spencerand executive producer of the film, with whom the brothers worked in Lost On Purpose, which won Best Film at Beverly Hills Film Festival in 2013, Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Oscar Nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), and two-time Golden Globe nominee Anthony Anderson (Black-ish) lead the phenomenal ensemble cast. Small Town Crime is primarily a vehicle for Hawkes, who continues his streak of playing troubled, bad-boy characters.
One might say that Hawkes is treading water in typecast territory, which is odd for a man of his appearance and natural demeanor. Nonetheless, he can pull off intimidating as good as anyone in the business, a testament to his skill as an actor. Martin McDonagh both acknowledged this typecast while, in a way, poking fun at it, by putting him in the role of the belittled, wife-beating Charlie in the problematic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Small Town Crime gives Hawkes a more realistic and honest role. The film tells the story of an alcoholic, disgraced former cop named Mike (Hawkes) who stumbles upon the body of a young woman. After she dies in the hospital, determined to both pursue justice, or so he makes himself believe, and the path to redemption, Mike becomes obsessed with finding the woman’s killer. Through his own inward process, he inadvertently puts his family in danger, questioning increasingly shady characters as he begins nearing the truth.
The film is listed as a mystery crime thriller, but it as much a comedy as it is a suspenseful drama, and the story is expertly crafted by the Nelms brothers. Hawkes is as earnest, vulnerable, and chagrined as he is disturbed and disagreeable. Small Town Crime, which received overwhelming acclaim at SXSW last year, might just be one of 2018s major sleeper hits.
A Second Chance At The Risk Of A Major Cost
Mike drinks his way through his sorrows since a horrific event got him fired from the police force. After finding the body, the audience soon realizes that Mike will do anything to get his badge back. He pretends to be a private investigator and weasels his way to discovering key information about who the woman, Christie, was, approaching her family and posing as the older brother of an old high school acquaintance of her, expressing his desire to find her killer.
His former colleagues go through lengths to keep him at bay from the case, knowing his past. Realistically, what Mike should be doing is continuing to find a job so he can start paying his mortgage, which his adoptive sister, Kelly (Spencer), and her husband (Anderson) are paying; he’s the ne’er-do-well brother constantly causing trouble for those around him. But the allure of doing the only thing that has felt right for him, being a cop, is strong for him to avoid.
We meet Christie’s ex lover and pimp (Clifton Collins Jr.), a violent, possessive person, a mysterious prostitute named Heidi (Caity Lotz) with ambiguous motives, the vindictive grandfather (Forster) desperate to catch the pimp, and several other colorful characters. As the plot unfolds, Small Town Crime takes a decidedly more brutal tone, an abundance of gore abound. Eventually, as the people Mike is tracking find him first, the viewer realizes just how much he’s put himself and his friends and loved ones in danger.
What starts out as a slowly unfolding mystery turns into a mile-a-minute lawless yarn with a grindhouse undertone that offsets the more violent and viscerally emotional aspects, a combination that the Nelms brothers deftly ride the fence of.
A Collective, Cross-Departmental Collaboration On The Same Creative Page
A film like Small Town Crime is, in every facet, an execution-dependent film, from conception to completion of the final product, to fruition. Spencer wouldn’t have helped fund a sizable portion of the film if she didn’t have complete confidence in the Nelms brothers to deliver. The project started with their script, which is pitch perfect and wildly original, incorporating a nostalgic feel of neo-noir films of the past with hints of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers (the most notable film of theirs relating to Small Town Crimes that comes to mind is Blood Simple).
As aforementioned, the cast is more than on board with and understanding of the writer-and-director-brothers’ vision and material that they’ve provided. In particular, Forster is no stranger to films such as these, with Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and recently, Small Crimes under his belt.
The Nelms brothers’ direction isn’t particularly flashy, and it doesn’t have to be. It is assured, steady-handed, and meticulously plotted. Their staging of each scene, framing of every shot, and lighting is perhaps what is most impressive about their direction.
At night, in order to convey a retro feel, the lighting they choose consists of faded neon primary colors. Shades of red, yellow, and green linger over almost every frame towards the end, mirroring the lighting of Mike’s favorite stuck-in-time dive bar, which he seems to have let go of at that point in the film, signifying his willingness to stay sober and move forward to the next chapter in his life. Johnny Derango, who has now worked with the Nelms brothers four times, does a fantastic job as cinematographer.
Small Town Crime is very much a coming out party for composer Christ Westlake, who has worked on notable films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Something’s Gotta Give, Dear John, and Before We Go. If it weren’t for his providing of a consistent backbone for the film, then the Nelms brothers’ vision would have unfolded in an entirely different way; music is tremendously important in film, so much so that a score written by a composer who doesn’t understand the material or the directors’ artistry or ingenuity can ruin a project entirely. Fortunately, Westlake and his ensemble nail every note, accompanying every tone shift perfectly.
Small Town Crime: A Frantically Good Time With Style And Substance
The Nelms brothers have a lot to say in Small Town Crime. The most significant themes are those of the impact of strict and oppressive parenting on their children, the loss and preservation of innocence, and pursuing a selfish goal at the expense of damaging personal relationships. Does Mike get his badge back? Does his family make it out of the quagmire he created to pursue said badge in the guise of finding justice for Christie and her family alive?
Audiences are in for a treat with an explosive, shocking, and exhilarating ending to this grindhouse-infused crime yarn dramedy. Small Town Crime delivers the goods with a layered story, enthralling mystery, classic and evocative but innovative action, and a cast and crew devoted to a singular artistic vision, marking the rise of the Nelms brothers to the big leagues.
Did you enjoy the quirky style of Small Town Crime? What is your favorite John Hawkes performance?
Small Town Crime opened to theatrical release and VOD on January 19, 2018 in the U.S. For all information on release dates, see here.