There was a time when genre films were a staple of the moviegoing experience. Nowadays the gulf between studio blockbusters and small-scale indies seems bigger than ever. But there is nothing artsy or arcane about the small-scale picture Small Town Crime. It’s an enjoyable film with a strong cast led by John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Michael Vartan, Robert Forster, and Clifton Collins, Jr.
I’d be tempted to call Small Town Crime a film noir, but it was shot in sunny Utah. Only at the climax does darkness literally set in. Its leading character is a perpetual screw-up who’d be right at home in a hard-boiled melodrama of the 1940s or 50s. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop in need of redemption and (not so incidentally) a job. Given the behavior that got him kicked off the local police force, that’s not going to be easy. While his adoptive sister (Spencer) and brother-in-law (Anderson) are willing to help out, there is a limit to their patience.
When Hawkes wakes up one morning with a major hangover, lying in the brush on the side of a highway and discovers a young woman’s body nearby, he springs into action and rushes her to the emergency room. He’s eager to follow up and figure out her backstory but his ex-partner (Vartan) has to remind him that he’s no longer a cop and can’t investigate the case. Fat chance; he’s hooked.
As he scouts around for clues he finds himself drawn into an ugly criminal world that doesn’t seem to fit his sunny surroundings. The more he learns, the more determined he becomes to pursue the crime, despite plenty of warning signs that he’s getting in over his head.
Writer-directors Ian and Eshom Nelms know they’re making a genre piece and handle it with confidence and skill. Having a top-tier cast makes their job that much easier. So does the resourceful use of locations, including some great dive bars and a deserted train yard, artfully lit by cinematographer Johnny Derango.
John Hawkes is an asset to any film he’s in and this one is no exception. The natural warmth and likability of Octavia Spencer and Anthony Anderson go a long way, and Robert Forster is exactly the guy you want to see filling the role of the victim’s vengeful grandfather. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays a colorful Latino pimp named Mood, complete with gold teeth and a low-rider tricked out with super-hydraulics.
You probably won’t see Small Town Crime up for any awards but it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s well-made entertainment, pure and simple, with enough surprises along the way to avoid being strictly formulaic. What’s more, it accomplishes all this in just under an hour and a half. It opens in theaters today and is also available on VOD.