Good Times, Bad Cop: John Hawkes goes rogue in Small Town Crime (Netflix Instant)

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Where the Brothers McDonagh kindled a flame with expertly cast grim, boozy murder films infused with black humor and brilliantly stylized audiovisual symmetry, brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms have grabbed the torch. Like the better, earlier works of John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), the Nelms’ Small Town Crime is a patchwork tableau of grisly death, wry one-liners and Tarantino-esque soundtrack work that operates in an existential space both too dark to be defined as a comedy and also too hyperreal to fit the mold of a serious murder noir. Having one of the most entertaining ensemble casts of the past decade doesn’t hurt, either.

But before getting into the great John Hawkes’ most memorable crime role since his turn as a devious cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene or Jennifer Lawrence’s crankhead uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, let’s get back to the McDonaghs for a moment. Because I’ve got a feckin’ bone to pick.

John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter's Bone

Don’t ask Teardrop twice…

What with all the fanfare around Three Billboards, I feel like Martin McDonagh’s essentially become the new Tarantinoa brilliant talent lauded too late, and at a point in his career where the shtick is running dry to the point of self-parody. And don’t worryI’m not operating from the viewpoint of cultural insensitivity that seemed to dominate Oscar-themed think pieces. My gripe with the elder McDonagh’s unyielding penchant for midget and race jokes has much more to due with the definition of beating a dead horse. Sure, he still nails the music-video elements of his films, but fucking-A if there isn’t 45 minutes of rote dialogue in Three Billboards that could have been left on the cutting room floor.

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“Hey, Frances—Tyrion here is short. That’s funny. Wanna spend half this fucking movie harping on it?”

As for John Michael, I was almost tempted to offer up a double-feature pairing in this post with his recent-to-Netflix War on Everyone. It has both an extremely similar premise to Small Town Crime (a drunk cop redemption song wrapped in the folds of a bloody, black comedy) and a stellar lead performance (Alexander Skarsgård). But when weighed against JM’s masterpiece The Guard (another crimedy about an addict cop), this thing is just another example of a McDonagh taking his talents and hype to Hollywood and creating an overly self-referential shambles of it all.

Why so serious?

Why so serious?

If this McDonagh-bashing comparison is for anything, it’s simply to let you know what kind of film you’re in for. Small Town Crimes opens with a disheveled Hawkes guzzling from a bottle of pills and drinking a generic prop beer while lifting weights in a garage, comically vomiting, and disregarding that his fence is caved in by a car he drunkenly parked on the lawn the night before. This sequence is set to the poignantly upbeat “Good Times,” one of the few non-cover Animals songs you’ll ever hear in a movie, and a ditty employed to feelmuch like the McDonagh Bros’ deft hand with Townes Van Zandtthat it was born into this world simply to serve this brief snippet of celluloid. Point being, you might overlook the magical harmony hereas I at first didif you’re simply going by the True Detective-esque gravity implied in the film’s misleading poster art and Netflix description.

With this montage, Small Town Crimes’ set-up for a redemption tale is clear. Hawkes’ Mike Kendall is an alcoholic ex-cop, relying on mortgage payments from his sister and her husband / Kendall’s drinking buddy (Octavia Spencer and Anthony Anderson). He applies to jobs only so that he can collect his welfare check to buy more booze and roar around in his supercharged black Nova. And of course, he’s a fallen from grace cop, naively operating on the premise that he’ll be rehired by the same force that let him go.

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True Defective…

If the hard-luck cop premise sounds tired, that’s because it is. But that’s where the Nelms’ interplay between believable characters and black comedy supersedes this trope. Kendall isn’t drinking away a dark episode like every other movie cop; he was a drunk before his fall from grace, and unapologetically remains one. In a slightly hyperreal film, there’s something almost refreshingly realistic about his pathetic situation not being the subject of pity.

“Wrap your car around a tree, I’m not gonna feel guilty,” says his drinking buddy after they’re 86’d from a local watering hole.

“Neither am I,” says Kendall with defiant apathy.

It should also be mentioned that the fleshed out character of Mike Kendall likely wouldn’t work in the hands of anyone other than Hawkes. Much like David Gordon Green did from a directorial standpoint in Joe, Hawkes perfectly balances the penchant for Jody Hill-inspired bafoonery with the gravity that made characters like Teardrop so brutally commanding (he’s not morally bankrupt like Seth Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, but he’s also not as concerned with righting his slovenly stance in the world as Liam Neeson’s in Walk Among the Tombstones).

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“We admitted that we were powerless over our accent, and that our beard had become unmanageable.”

Getting back to the plot, black comedy shifts to heavy noir when Kendall finds a prostitute dying by the side of the road. Murders abound and Kendall finds fast-cashand then purposein identifying and hunting down a pair of seedy hitmen by transforming himself into the noir-ish private dick Mike Winter. Thus, Small Town Crime gives way to a web of highly memorable roles pulled off by character-actor greats like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Breaking Bad), Clifton Collins, Jr. (Capote) and Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone, Hell or Highwater).

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“Hey there, muthafucka!”

All said, Small Town Crime excels in its hybrid of pitch-perfect black humor and bloody noir shoot-’em-up that starts with a crash landing and goes out with a bang. And it begs the question: Is there really a better crime comic acting than John Hawkes? Take notice, McDonaghs.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.6

-Sam Adams

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The Living on Netflix Instant: A country-noir thriller for fans of Blue Ruin and Joe

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If it wasn’t abundantly clear in my posts on Blue Ruin and Joe, one of my favorite emerging subgenres is that of the bleak-as-fuck country noir thriller/drama. For prime examples of this movement, one can look to the literary works of Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, The Outlaw Album) or the cinematic ones of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories) and other recent standouts like Jim Mickle’s Cold in July.

A recurring pattern of revenge and vigilante justice can be found in all these titles. There’s also a lot of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. Does the genre rely a bit heavily on our pleasure in viewing an exploited archetype? Perhaps. (If you want to go down that road, here’s a great article on the genesis of country noir.)

If you’ve made it through all the movies I’ve mentioned, however, and aren’t too offended by a little yokel-on-yokel bloodlettin’, let me recommend another one that recently hit Netflix…

The Living
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Before I get your hopes up, let me state off the bat that The Living is simply not as strong a country noir showing as Blue Ruin or Joe. It’s a film that operates in the very particular, bleak vein of those films and executes well in at least a few of the areas they did.

I was hooked immediately by the film’s opening credits. Sublime photography of desolate Pennsylavania farmlandcoupled with a forlorn Michael Hurley ballad that sounds like something Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams would have played together in purgatoryevoke an ominous air of doom. While not exactly as audiovisually brilliant as the use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” in Blue Ruin, it still set the stage for some very eerie, fucked up hilljackery to commence.

And then we meet Teddy, an alcoholic who wakes up bloodied on the rug one morning and finds both his wedding ring and his wife missing. Teddy soon finds out that in a drunken furor, he beat his Molly into a bloody pulp. Contrition brings wifey back home, despite the warnings of her tough, chain-smoking mammy (Joelle Carter, looking less like her character Ava from Justified and more like Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and the Breaking Bad “ATM episode”).

Joelle Carter as Ava and Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone look like Joelle Carter in The Living

Even Ava Crowder has her bad days…

Then there’s Molly’s brother Gordon, a weak simpleton who wants revenge on Teddy but doesn’t have the cojones to get his hands dirty. That is until a shady friend says he knows a guy who takes care of people. “You sure he’s good,” Teddy asks. “I’m sure he’s cheap,” homey replies. And fortunately for us, mystery hitman ends up being the the strongest element of the entire film.

You probably don’t know Chris Mulkey’s name, but you’ll know his face (and I’ll omit it here so as not to play spoiler). His depiction of a weathered, barstool-philosophizing ex-con assassin echoes a rube-ish hybrid of Anton Chigurh and Rust Cohle (in his beer can origami days).

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“I quit my detectivin’ job but I been sellin’ these cute little fuckers on Etsy for $12 a pop. It’s all about shapin’ a flat circle, amigo…”

As a fount of deadpan psycopathic wisdom, Mulkey delivers some of the film’s most memorable scenes, including a parable about a dying mountain lion cub that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis. This bit solidifies the film’s otherwise generically vague title, and also accomplishes that rare feat of bringing palpable humanity to a monster.

The Living also excels in its casting, predicated on a who’s-who of B-actors from both terrific horror and hillbilly cinema. For starters, you’ve got two leads from two of the more memorable horror movies of the past decade (Jocelin Donahue from House of the Devil and and Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods). Then there’s vets of bleak, country shows like Carter and Mulkey (both of whom did stints on Justified).

An area where the film falters, as is often the case, is in the character of the young, virgin-eyed protagonist (Kenny Wormald’s Gordon). He plays the criminally green, simpleton card just a little too heavy, and seeing as the majority of his scenes are with Mulkey, the awkward effort is even more pronounced. (In lieu of the otherwise-strong and genre-specific casting, I’m assuming this film simply didn’t have the budget for Tye Sheridan.)
Tye Sheridan better call saul

In all, The Living certainly does not have that raw, improvisational edge that made Joe so fantastic, nor the attention to atmospheric detail that lifted both that film and Blue Ruin to new heights of country noir-dom. But Mulkey’s deranged performance is worth the brisk 89-minute run time alone. And for anyone as smitten as myself with this wave of menacingly bleak hill-folk flicks (again—Winter’s Bone, Shotgun Stories, Joe, Cold in July, Blue Ruin, etc.), it’s a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

-Sam Adams