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.
What with all the fanfare around Three Billboards, I feel like Martin McDonagh’s essentially become the new Tarantino—a 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 worry—I’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.
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.
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 feel—much like the McDonagh Bros’ deft hand with Townes Van Zandt—that it was born into this world simply to serve this brief snippet of celluloid. Point being, you might overlook the magical harmony here—as I at first did—if 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.
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).
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-cash—and then purpose—in 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).
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.