It looks like John Hawkes is carving a niche for himself on the seedier streets of neo-noir. Two years ago, the impressively protean character actor essayed a low-rent shamus who discovers himself — and finds himself wanting — while searching for a missing young woman in Dennis Hauck’s intriguingly time-scrambled “Too Late.” Now he’s back on the case as another scuffed-up gumshoe in “Small Town Crime,” a hardboiled melodrama with a heart of tarnished gold. Written and directed by sibling filmmakers Ian and Eshom Nelms with equal measures of respect and skepticism for pulp conventions, the movie comes across as neither pastiche nor parody, but rather as a seriously down-and-dirty crime story with a savage sense of humor. The just-complicated-enough plot could pass for a lesser-known narrative of Elmore Leonard. At the center of it all, Hawkes stands tall — or at least he tries to, even when his character is staggering drunkenly, or passing out altogether.
Hawkes plays Mike Kendall, an alcoholic ex-cop who was booted off the force after he inadvertently caused the deaths of his partner and an innocent bystander while policing under the influence. He’s borderline pathetic in his self-delusion as he doggedly attempts to regain his job, even as he continues to drink himself into oblivion on a daily, and nightly, basis. He’s the sort of heavy-duty inebriate who’ll invite a buddy to close down a few bars after they attend an AA meeting.
One morning after a typical bender, he discovers a woman left for dead on the side of a road. She never wakes up before she expires — but her death triggers something in Kendall, and he becomes obsessed with discovering who killed her. At first he tells his adopted sister (Octavia Spencer), his amiable brother-in-law (Anthony Anderson), and himself, that he’s hellbent on solving the crime only so he can get back on the force. The more he searches for clues, however, the more obvious it becomes — even to Kendall, eventually — that he’s really after a shot at redemption.
Posing as a private detective, complete with cheaply printed business cards, Kendall interacts with such colorful characters — portrayed by the splendidly ragtag supporting cast — as Steve Yendel (Robert Forster), the victim’s well-to-do grandfather, and Mood (Clifton Collins Jr.), a pimp with inordinate pride in his work. He soon pieces together clues that indicate the murder victim was a discontented rich girl who drifted into drugs and prostitution. She made the mistake of blackmailing the wrong people; and two other hookers who collaborated on this ill-starred scheme may be next on a hired killer’s hit list.
In his vivid performance as Kendall, Hawkes deftly balances scrawny vulnerability with an aggressive swagger — the ex-cop takes childish delight, and clearly overcompensates, while gunning the engine of his muscle car. All the while, he suggests that we should never take his character’s moments of apparent sobriety at face value. When someone point-blank accuses him of being drunk, he casually responds: “I’m comfortable.” He sounds equally nonchalant when he explains to a curious floozy that, yes, Kelly (Spencer), his supportive but not infinitely patient sister, and Teddy (Anderson), her loving husband, are African-Americans, and that he was damn lucky to have been adopted at early age into a family where he wasn’t brutally beaten on a routine basis.
The Nelms brothers tip their caps unobtrusively to certain films (a bespectacled hit man appears to be a visual allusion to “Bullitt”) and indicate they learned their lessons well while studying a few others. There is a confident, no-frills efficiency to scenes of action and violence — especially a climactic shootout in a train yard — and a snarky riff on the cliché of characters who define themselves through their choice of vehicles. (In the latter area, Collin’s flamboyant Mood actually outdoes Kendall by driving around in tricked-out purple ’68 Chevy Impala.) At one point, it seems a tad odd that Forster’s vengeful grandfather suddenly, and inexplicably, is very handy with a high-powered rifle. But the filmmakers simply present this to the audience as a given, as if to say, “Hey, relax. This is Robert Forster. In this kind of movie, of course he’d be good with a gun.” And, really, that makes perfect sense.