' ' Cinema Romantico: Small Town Crime

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Small Town Crime

Typically “private investigator” in noir is shorthand for bitter drunk down to his last chance. That’s true of Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), burgeoning private investigator at the center of “Small Town Crime”, save for the bitter part. He is a drunk for sure, cleaning his car dashboard of empty beer cans most mornings, and down to his last chance absolutely, which has come about because of his drunkenness, but he does not, frankly, seem all that bitter. Consider the movie’s opening, which catches sight of Mike as his garage door opens, pounding his morning beer, before the shot flips and we see his car parked in his lawn, having left a shattered white fence post (I had a hard time Mike kept maintained in the first place) in its wake. That might’ve been enough. Except, then he sits down and bench presses weights, pausing to slurp more beer, then pausing to puke, then bench pressing again, a guy devoted to physical health even as he wrecks it. If you are a drunk with the wherewithal to stick to your morning weight lifting routine you can’t be all that bitter.

This is how Hawkes plays the part too, forgoing, say, Paul Newman’s drearily droll countenance in “Harper” or Michael Shannon’s exhausted whateverism in “The Missing Person.” Hawkes has Mike bop down to the unemployment office each week to collect his check, which he does by cheerily employing his alcoholism as a safeguard against ever landing a job. Oh, he makes stabs at getting on the wagon, like the standard issue shot of ignoring the beer cans in the fridge for the milk carton instead, but there is something in the way that Hawkes desperately glugs that white liquid that makes you think, like Ron Burgundy, milk was a bad choice. Why the sound design makes beer guzzling down his gullet resonate with less dread than boys will be boys whimsy. His oddly ebullient air is finally compromised when he comes upon a young woman, bruised and bloodied, lying on the side of the road, and then becomes determined to solve her murder, hiring himself out as a P.I. to the dead girl’s father (Robert Forster). Yet even here Hawkes rarely strikes a sour tone, playing it more with a frenzied itch to crack the case.

That’s an odd tone to strike, particularly when every death on screen is presented so macabrely, and brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, who wrote and directed, cannot always manage it. There might have been something Coen-ish here, except their atmosphere of desert and darkened bars is never heightened, betraying a more formal tone. And they write none of their supporting characters with any sense of panache, save for Dale Dickey’s bartender who gets one hellacious speech and then is shunted inside. Everyone else is treated with a surprising sort of earnestness, at least in relation to Hawkes’s drunken bundle of joy, like Octavia Spencer playing his sister, whose character never really goes beyond steadfast yet exasperated, or Anthony Anderson playing Spencer’s husband, a good-natured character who seems readymade to exist as Watson to Hawkes’s Sherlock but mostly just turns up to get placed in peril.

Maybe that constitutes a spoiler, but probably not. “Small Town Crime” is nothing if not predictably plotted, and, more troublingly, rarely finds ways to illuminatingly color within its obvious lines. It seems to want Mike’s damn the torpedoes intent to inadvertently put all those he cares about in danger, a callback, to what went wrong in his previous life as a policeman, seen in solemn flashback. It’s Jake Gittes going back to Chinatown, in other words, though this one ends in a western-styled shootout, less notable for its serviceably portrayed gunplay than a brief moment when the girl’s father is called on the carpet for how his treatment might have spurred her toward her terrible demise. It’s the only time the movie sort of stops to even consider the girl herself. That, I dare say, might be deliberate, who she is and what she means being trampled by Mike’s own determination to re-make his place in the world, though the movie never makes clear whether or not that’s true. On the other hand, Mike’s inevitable lesson learned isn’t so inevitable, evoked in an ending that doesn’t seem to completely let him off the hook. The closing credits go for an obvious joke with other characters, but I kept wondering if Mike had made his way back to a bar.

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