Many artists begin their artistic careers through imitation. They are drawn to art with the desire to recreate and claim for themselves the works that have inspired them.
Some of these artists then mature beyond mere imitation, finding in themselves something unique to convey through their craft. Even before that point, in these early imitative works, seeing both the self-awareness that the works lack and the artists’ sincere reverence to their source material is always intriguing.
“Small Town Crime,” directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms, is one such imitative work. A small-town, hardboiled thriller-comedy, this film wears its influences on its sleeve. Deadbeat, alcoholic, ex-cop Mike Kendall (John Hawkes, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is introduced as a bleary-eyed man on a sunny morning with a beer in his hand. He stares out towards his black muscle car, which is parked haphazardly on his front lawn.
After being fired from the police force for being drunk on duty, he spends his days living off of unemployment checks and loans from his foster sister, Kelly (Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”), and lazily flunking his way through daily job interviews. In the evenings, he goes on benders, sometimes with Kelly’s husband (Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish”), sometimes alone.
The morning after one such bender, Kendall finds a badly beaten prostitute on a roadside. After taking her to a hospital where she eventually succumbs to her wounds, Kendall sees the opportunity to force his way back into the good graces of his former employers.
Masquerading as a PI hired by the grandfather of the dead
woman, Kendall stumbles his way into the seedy underbelly of his Utah suburb, rubbing noses with prostitutes, mononymous pimps, seedy bartenders and hired hitmen in an attempt to solve the woman’s murder.
Beat for beat, the premise seems ripped straight out of a Raymond Chandler book or a Coen Brothers movie. Clearly, the Nelms were trying to emulate the same kind of convoluted, noir mystery that their influences pull off with such tact and depth, but the Nelms are only able to pull off a superficial facsimile.
Every plot point goes exactly where one would expect it to go because viewers have seen this plot trotted out so many times before. The outcast PI tangles his way through a lurid string of crimes to achieve ultimate redemption in the end.
While the Nelmses have lovingly recreated the quintessential hardboiled detective movie plot, their imitation lacks the depth of their inspirations. In the annals of great pulp fiction, plot comes secondary to complex characters, metacommentary and poignant themes about human nature and morality.
In “Small Town Crime,” the plot coils around and about, pausing only for loud, gratuitously violent shootouts that exist simply because the genre seems to demand it. But, the film’s plot unfortunately seems to be the main attraction. In the end, the Nelmses have nothing
to say. At times, they lack a crucial self-awareness that would have lent a sharpness and wit to the film. Half the time, the film wants to be coyly humorous while the other half of the film exudes self-seriousness.
When Kendall ultimately finds himself in a shootout allied with a smart-talking pimp in a purple low-rider and a 76-year-old man with a sniper rifle, viewers are left wondering whether the Nelmses appreciate the ridiculousness of the situation. Still, viewers can roll with the film’s contrivances on the strength of Hawkes’s performance. Slight of stature with a hawk nose and shifty eyes, Hawkes is the essence of the hardboiled detective, at once pitiful and admirable,
incorrigible but cleverer than
Through Hawkes, viewers can buy into the Nelmses’ homage. Roaring down the street in his black Chevy Nova, beer cans on his dashboard, Hawkes lends some depth and authenticity to the plot by evoking the heroes of pulp fiction past and convincing the audience that, yes, this film was made with love.
This film is perfectly average. Made competently, with surprisingly loud gunshot effects that lend a welcome tension to most shootouts, “Small Town Crime” does not present itself particularly poorly, providing adequate entertainment in the moment.
The action is energetic and the characters have enough quirks to keep audience members engaged. Further, the Nelmses’ passion for the hardboiled genre makes this film undeniably sincere, if not particularly remarkable; that sincerity is hard to find in a film landscape characterized by big budget blockbusters. Entirely predictable, this film hits enough familiar beats to please, but “Small Town Crimes” is ultimately forgettable.
Small Town Crimes is currently playing at the Plaza Theatre.