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Small town crime poster
Small Town Crime
★★★★☆
First run Theater cinema

2017’s South by Southwest film festival featured several minor works that stood out from the pack by aiming to do little more than spin a satisfying yarn in a consummate manner: Noël Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt, Aaron Katz’s Gemini, and the best narrative I saw at SXSW this year, Small Town Crime by the writing/directing team of Ian and Eshom Nelms. The diminutive and generic sounding title practically sentences this picture to easily forgotten status—thousands of movies could use this moniker. But the quality of writing, acting, and filmmaking ensure that Small Town Crime will resonate for quite a long time with those who see it.  John Hawks—one of the great stars of modern independent cinema—plays a disgraced, alcoholic ex-cop named Mike Kendall. Mike’s sense of purpose and self-worth gets rekindled when he discovers a nearly dead woman by the side of the road and rushes her to the hospital. Then, posing as a private investigator, he goes to work for the girl’s grandfather (Robert Forster in a knock-out performance) and tangles with number of colorfully devised, shady characters.  Clifton Collins, Jr.—another stalwart of the past decade of indie cinema—plays one of these men, a pimp named Mood.

I was unfamiliar with the Nelms brother (whose previous features Lost on Purpose and Waffle Street were released in 2013 and 2015 respectively), but I’ll be following their careers from now on. This compact, well-structured mystery unfolds in an effortless way, and the shooting style and dialogue are assertive yet unostentatious.  This is a rare neo-noir that feels like it could have been made during the golden age of the film-noir genre—the 1940s and ‘50s.  In fact, there is only one key aspect of the picture that feels “neo” at all, which is the casting of Anthony Anderson (Hustle & Flow, The Departed, and the TV series Black-ish) as Hawkes’ brother-in-law and Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station, Hidden Figures—who also executive produced this movie) as his adoptive sister.  The racial make-up of this family and the roles each of them play in their community would have been impossible in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but in the contemporary small town of Small Town Crime these factors are barely given a second thought.

Memorable character actors populate the entire company of cops, criminals, and innocent and not-so-innocent members of the town. This attention to essential detail again recalls the kind of care that went into filling out supporting roles in classic noirs.  Likewise, the story beats may be familiar, but the staging, shooting, and editing are of such high caliber they feel revitalized.  The final shootout transforms a potentially clichéd sequence, reminiscent of thousands of crime pictures and westerns, into an exciting, emotionally engaging climax. The slender, quiet Hawks seems like such an unlikely lead for the hard-boiled or menacing roles he’s often cast in, but time and time again he proves himself an ideal choice for these parts.  I was a fan of Dennis Hauck’s Too Late (2015), which also feature Hawkes as a gumshoe and Robert Forester as a tough guy, but seeing them work together in this film illustrates the difference between an entertaining genre exercise and a solid work of genre fiction.

Twitter Capsule:
My favorite narrative feature of SXSW 2017 demonstrates the power of minor stories told exceptionally well.

Directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms
Produced by Brad Johnson, Parisa Caviani, and John J. Kelly

Written by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms

With: John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Vartan, Daniel Sunjata, James Lafferty, Don Harvey, Stefania Barr, Katie Cockrell, Caity Lotz, Dale Dickey, and Jeremy Ratchford

Cinematography: Johnny Derango
Editing: Traton Lee
Music: Chris Westlake

Runtime: 91 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color