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

Joe on Netflix Instant or: The Beautiful Insanity of Letting Nicolas Cage Be Nicolas Cage

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If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.

In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.

And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.

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What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?

But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.

On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.

But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of  dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.

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“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”

Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.

One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.

In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.

In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…

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“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013

You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.

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“You don’t know nothin’.”

And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:

(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…

I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.

After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, Con Air is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.

Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.

At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.

Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.

So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:

Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.

Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.

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Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.

EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection)For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&D made a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.

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Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.

Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)

But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.

Stake Land on Netflix Instant: Vampocalypse, Now!

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An original narrative is roughly as valueless to a post-apocalyptic film as a stack of Benjamins is to its characters. Need proof? Indulge me for a moment:

  • In Zombieland, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man after being trained by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead.
  • In Season 4 of The Walking Dead, the gang (including a boy who’s become a man through zombie-killing) goes in search of a reputed safe haven where a thriving society is promised.

Zombieland is, of course, a parodied recapitulation of every zombie movie ever (wherein boozing pretty much goes hand-in-hand with walker-slaying). And that Walking Dead premise of searching for the sanctum away from the undead hordes has been done ad nauseam (28 Days Later, I Am Legend, etc.).

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“Just ask my guy Rust Cohle—it takes whiskey to fight monsters.”

In 2010’s Stake Land, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead, with whom he takes off for a reputed safe haven. Yes, the concept is about as fresh as a decomposing corpse in a farm house off a shady dirt road. But, as in all matters of postapocalyptic survival and success, its the execution that counts. And for a low-budget, devilish little vampire road-movie, Stake Land hits the wooden pike on the head.

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“Didn’t you see Zombieland, kid? We ain’t gettin’ nowhere without some car drinkin’.”

The acting is formidable enough, and the vamps—while nothing special—are far superior to the CGI bastardization that occurred in the aforementioned “meh”-inducing adaption of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel I Am Legend.

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I Am Legend: CGI that made South Park look like photorealism.

So if I’m pointing to one reason why Stake Land is among the best postapocalyptic films of the past decade, it comes down to one man: Jim Mickle.

Mickle is one of two up-and-coming, grim-bent directors whose every project I eagerly await (the same way I did for Neil Marshall after Dog Soliders and The Descent… Let’s just pretend Centurion and Doomsday never happened). The other would be Jeff Nichols, who’s basically the Daniel Woodrell of cinema. Nichols’ Take Shelter and Mud (on Netflix Instant) are both of the must-watch caliber. And his 2007 project, Shotgun Stories (also on Instant), is a great companion piece for anyone who liked Blue Ruin. I also love that Nichols has chosen to make the great Michael Shannon the Dicaprio to his Scorsese.

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Michael Shannon delivering one of Take Shelter‘s more memorable lines.

But back to Mickle. He’s got a deft hand for filming the bleakest and moodiest of landscapes and imbuing his pared-down tales with an unrelenting current of suspense. After knocking it out the park with Stake Land, he did We Are What We Are (also on Netflix Instant—wouldn’t highly recommend it, but again, great cinematography and totally worth your while). His most recent project was Cold In July, which just so happens to be my favorite movie released this year (rent it if ye can).

OK, let’s get into the meat and bones of Stake Land—the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In. Our aforementioned boy-and-man duo are Martin (Connor Paolo) and  his mentor, known simply as “Mister.” After a crash-course in vamp killing played over title credits, Martin becomes the Karate Kid to Mister’s Mr. Miyagi (you obviously can’t go wrong with a good Mister.)

What also makes Mister cool is that he’s a dead-ringer for Jimmy Smits’ Nero character on Sons of Anarchy.

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“Let’s kill some vamps, mano!”

An opening montage of stark countryscapes is narrated by Martin, who lets us know that D.C. has fallen and with it, the nation as we know it. Major cities are to be avoided, and religious zealots run the show, capturing and unleashing vamps upon their enemies in the form of bipedal biological weapons. To avoid this shitstorm, Martin and Mister decide they better make their way to a purported sanctuary known as “New Eden.”

On the way, we’re introduced to several interesting vamp mutations. There are “beserkers” (the oldest of the vamps, and hard to kill), “scamps” (kiddie vampires who are still in the teething stages), and a more evolved brand of vamp that harkens the character of Robert Neville from I Am Legend. There’s also some great George Romero camp thrown in by the way of an undead Santa.

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All I want for Christmas is my two front fangs...

Stake Land borrows across genres, tropes and oft-explored notions (Does garlic work? Maybe, maybe not, but it can’t hurt.) In no way is this film reinventing the wheel, but for a beautifully shot, low-budget vampire thriller, it really couldn’t get much better. Fans of The Walking Dead, particularly, should watch this without hesitation. After all, it does in 98 minutes what that show’s been grinding at for five years.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.6*

*Remember: IMDb grades for horror movies run much lower than for dramatic fare of equal caliber.