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The prospect of a darkly comic gumshoe noir set in a rural locale is a cheering notion for anyone whose heart was frozen back in the time of Fargo. Why is it so fun, in the movies, to see our non-coastal cities mired in crime? Eshom and Ian Nelms’s Small Town Crime, starring John Hawkes, seems to promise a quirky Long Goodbye-like detective story in a mountain town, following an alcoholic ex-cop who finds a dead body and pursues the killer at all costs — when he’s not bumbling from one townie bar to the next. But why set their story in a small town if it and its inhabitants have no defining personality or mannerisms? Every town possesses a history, culture, lineage and language all unto its own, but in the Nelms’s hands, we see none of that. Here’s a half-boiled mystery and boring bad guys, but the film does have a saving grace: Hawkes’s comic timing.
Ex-cop Mike Kendall (Hawkes) wakes up each morning wherever his nightly bender has left him. Sometimes he’s in his home with his car plowed through the front yard; sometimes he’s not. One fateful dawn splayed in the middle of a field, clinging to some trash, he finds the body of a young woman, bloody and barely alive. Drunken Mike also glimpses a smidgen of hope: He could get a little piece of his old life as a cop back by finding the guy who did this.
Snow-capped mountains framing flat prairie land loom for most of the movie’s landscape. This is likely Utah, but you wouldn’t know unless you’ve lived there, traveled through, or squinted your eyes to scrutinize the onscreen license plates. We’re given no sense of whether the woman’s murder is commonplace or extraordinary in this community, even though it seems like everyone knows everyone. As the investigation proceeds, and young, sexy corpses pop up in this seemingly serene town, it’s never explained where there’s apparently a local reserve of lingerie models ready to get shot or locked up in someone’s trunk. I couldn’t help but think of the Kroll Show sketch “Dead Girl Town,” where every two seconds another hot, nameless woman is found murdered in a suggestive pose. The crime genre has long had many a woman-problem, but does emulating a throwback style necessitate repeating old mistakes? When 45-year-old Mike tells his good-guy brother-in-law (Anthony Anderson) about the twenty-something woman he found, the brother-in-law suggests that maybe Mike could be the woman’s “knight in shining armor” and date this victim who is likely going to die in the hospital. The filmmakers actually attempt to pass this off as a possibility for Mike.
Despite these misfires, the Nelms still land some organic jokes via Hawkes’s Mike. In one scene, our disheveled but hopeful not-quite-a-cop enters a copy shop and proudly asks for “15 … no, let’s make it 25 business cards.” That’s a crafty and telling detail, succinctly hitting on both Mike’s low expectations as well as his environment. Does he really need a business card for every single person in town? But that’s the best you’re gonna get as this thing winds down into a nonsensical shootout, abandoning character for a lot of blood and bullets.