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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In Bruges on Netflix Instant: Holidaying Hitmen and Irish Wit, Low Assembly Required

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BY ADAM FOX

Three thoughts cross my mind when watching 2008’s cult crime-comedy In Bruges:

  • I remember when Colin Farrell was supposed to be the new action mega-star of our time;
  • I really need to visit Belgium, and;
  • I’m embarrassed how writer/director Martin McDonagh’s depiction of American tourists is regrettably and painfully spot-on.
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“I coulda been a contender…”

Which begs the question: Why is this film perpetually in the monolithic wasteland known as a department store’s $5 “bargain bin?” That space is relegated to future installments of the Air Bud franchise, with the vacant-eyed golden performing in increasingly obscure sports. Perhaps the price tag is an accessible way to ensure that the film finds a home in every cinephile’s library. Either way, In Bruges is an excellent, tidy representation of the assassin genre, and is refreshingly cerebral in comparison with its like-minded counterparts.

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“HE’S ONLY GOT ONE SHOT…”

Rookie hitman Ray (Farrell) and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to the quaint medieval town of Bruges, Belgium by their crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after Ray mistakenly kills a child in an operation gone awry. They’re confined to a tiny, inconspicuous inn and told to wait for further instruction from Voldemort himself before departing. Ken is the glass-half-full vet who attempts to enjoy all of the cobblestone-covered offerings in this “fucking fairy tale” of a city, while Ray, rather ironically, despises Bruges and all that it represents. In what is essentially Disney’s Fantasyland spread over a more generous acreage, it’s humorous to witness Ray’s gigantic axe to grind with the innocently charming Bruges.

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“I feckin’ love Bruges!”                      “I feckin’ hate it!”

Ray, at the behest of optimist Ken, begrudgingly tries to make the most of his time stuck in this desolate hell-hole and ends up meeting beautiful Belgian Chloë (Clémence Poésy) on a movie set not dissimilar to Eyes Wide Shut, but with little people amongst the Venetian masks. On an ensuing date, Ray is hilariously up front about his career choice and is somewhat nonplussed when Chloë reveals hers—a production assistant who also deals drugs (an important position undoubtedly high up on the Hollywood pecking order). Ray’s gloomy disposition changes drastically when in Chloë’s company. But he still fucking hates Bruges.

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Clémence Poésy: More beautiful than Bruges

(SPOILER ALERT, following paragraph only:)
After some time passes, Ken receives the call from Harry/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to take Ray out on a boat and Fredo Corleone him. Harry is a complicated and neurotic character who also happens to be a man of principle, and decides that Ray must face justice for shooting a child, accident or not. Ken just can’t pull the trigger on his partner and, after attempting to get Ray out of Dodge completely, incurs the wrath of Harry who decides to head into town and deal with the situation himself. What results is an epically gorgeous beer-battered shoot-‘em-up through the windy, narrow streets of Bruges.

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“Kill the Irishman!”

The dialogue in In Bruges is particularly smart, snappy and positively Irish, driven by the strength of Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes’ performances. There’s a moral gravity associated with the choices the characters make throughout the film, interspersed with sweeping commentary on ethics. But each of the three lead actors look like they’re having a fucking blast filming the scenes, which in turn makes it extremely enjoyable to watch, and much easier to swallow the larger story arc the film offers. In Bruges isn’t the reel companion piece to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or anything, but there is a little more at stake than just the lives of expendable characters the audience doesn’t actually care about (as crime movies can often stray).

Bruges, Belgium is obviously a major player and the unsung hero of the film, occupying significant real estate in the story without turning it into some type of travel documentary. I’m not exactly sure how an unassuming little village like Bruges came to be the consensus centerpiece of a crimedy, but it works beautifully. Eschewing more common European locales like London, Paris and Venice affords it an immense amount of unexplored flavor. The scenes themselves aren’t too unfamiliar for fans of the genre, but they’re somehow different and more memorable with a background of belfries and bridges that closely resemble Arthurian legend.

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“Feckin’ gorgeous, eh?”

In Bruges is viciously rewatchable, enormously entertaining, and Colin Farrell’s crowning achievement over a long-spanning career in films wholly inferior to this. There’s something very vintage about the character- and dialogue-driven In Bruges, easily dismissed by the short attention-spanned Michael Bay adherents but coveted by the jaded critic-codgers like myself. It tells a story thoroughly yet succinctly, hitting all the right strides in making its comedic moments actually funny and its action moments tense.

There’s a great chance you watched this back in 2008 as it was released along with a healthy amount of fanfare for a movie of its size, but it stands the test of time incredibly well and was even better than I remember it being. In Bruges is proof that if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of adrenaline-seeking theatergoers, you don’t necessarily need to beat them over the head with CGI.

IMDb: 8.0
GRADE: A –