An ex-cop whose alcoholism cost him his job, the respect of his colleagues, and his partner’s life finds redemption in the darkest of places in writer/director Eshom and Ian Nelms’ deep dive beneath the placid surface of a rural California town. Prostitution, blackmail, and murder might make the Chamber of Commerce quail, but for Mike Kendall (John Hawkes), those felonies represent a second chance.
That Mike might even want a second chance is not evident at Small Time Crime’s start. Waking out of his latest drunken blackout to find he’s rammed his muscle car into his own fence, Mike simply shrugs and starts drinking again. A round of job interviews reveals one thing: Here is a man desperate to maintain a lifestyle that seems to consist of collecting unemployment checks that will keep him in his perpetually inebriated state. Mike touched bottom a long time ago, now he’s busy trying to see if there’s a bottom beneath the bottom. Except for his sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer), brother-in-law Teddy (Anthony Anderson), and sympathetic police detective Crawford (Michael Vartan), Mike is pretty much friendless and too snockered to mind.
That changes when he finds a dying girl by the side of the road one morning. Old instincts kick in and take over. Despite being warned off by Crawford and his partner (Daniel Sunjata), Mike can’t help himself. In pretending to be a private detective, he becomes one. He also kicks a hornet’s nest as his investigation is one more thorn in the side of people trying to keep a secret buried.
Mike might wear a cheap suit—as the dead girl’s pimp Mood (Clifton Collins, Jr.) churlishly points out— but this character is exquisitely tailored to Hawkes, one of the greatest character actors working today. A lifetime of hurt has rendered him a shambling wreck of a man, one who can barely function unless he’s well-oiled. And, yet, when his investigative juices start flowing, he is virtually unstoppable, even as he begins to realize that there is a price to be paid for his meddling.
The Nelms brothers grew up in California’s Central Valley and clearly have an eye for small-town eccentricity and empathy for dead-end lives. They have surrounded Hawkes with a terrific supporting cast that in addition to Spencer (who also executive produced), Anderson, Vartan, and Collins, includes Robert Forster as the dead girl’s vengeance-seeking grandfather, Dale Dickey as a no-nonsense bartender, and Jeremy Ratchford as a thorn in Mike’s side. These fine actors and more populate this suspenseful, sun-drenched neo-noir that charts not just the aftermath of a crime, but one lost man’s surprising discovery that he is not as far gone as he thinks. –Pam Grady