100 Proof, No Chaser: John Hawkes goes noir in Nelms Brothers' 'Small Town Crime'

Movies Features

At precisely the time when we need one, critics have started calling John Hawkes “the new Harry Dean Stanton.” Wrinkled, rumpled, vaguely wasted, he perpetually wears a look of the lost-on-the-way-to-becoming-a-loser—whether he’s a meth-high hillbilly (Winter’s Bone), an iron-lung sex recipient (The Sessions), a Manson-like cult leader (Martha Marcy May Marlene) or a drug-driven jazz pianist (Low Down).

For the latest in this long line, Hawkes wastes not a frame of Small Town Crime establishing how just down-and-out his new character is. Raising his garage door, he gulps from a bottle of pills, downs that with a swash of beer, and glares glumly at his front lawn where his car has made kindling of what was once a white picket fence.

Another day has faded to blackout. Unrealistically unperturbed, he phones his former employer to see if his reentry application to the local police force has been considered. The voice at the other end of the line kindly understates that it would take a miracle. (It seems his drunkenness-on-duty resulted in his partner’s death.)

Fortunately, Eshom and Ian Nelms—the brothers who concocted and directed this riveting, off-center little thriller from Saban Films and Lionsgate—believe in miracles and contrive one for our wannabe hero. Comes the next dawn, after he wakes up in an open field where his car has inexplicably carried him, he finds a bloodied, near-death prostitute beside the road. Suddenly, it becomes an obsession—a way to redemption, if you will—to find out who put her there and why. Therein hangs a tough, taut, twisty, violent tale.

The brothers Nelms are products of a small town—Woodlake, Calif., by name—and proud of it. Now, they’re profiting from it, having dreamed up Small Town Crime during one of their three-hour-plus drives home from L.A. across desolate landscape.

“It’s always a creative endeavor for us when we take these drives because we usually brainstorm scenarios, and we always end up coming away with something,” admits Eshom. “On this particular drive up north, we were passing the oil fields, and we thought of a falling-down-drunk who’s been on a bender all night and finds a body driving back to town. From that seed of an idea came Small Town Crime, and it, I think, came from a bunch of the Dirty Harry movies and George Pelecanos’ novels.”

You can thank Mother Nelms for the film influence. “We’ve always loved the crime-thriller genre and the gray-area characters that go with them,” says Ian the younger (by two years), 37. “Our mom got a subscription to The Clint Eastwood Collection, and we’d get a new VHS tape every two weeks. We especially got hooked on the Sergio Leone westerns and the Dirty Harry series. They really resonated with us.”

Hence, the toughness and unexpected humor that infect Small Town Crime. In the finale shootout, instead of the promised damsel, Hawkes hands a blow-up doll over to the assembled hit-men. It just lies there on the gravel while the corpses pile up.

Eshom put in a decade as a storyboard artist before he took up co-directing with his brother and storyboarding all of their films. “Storyboards are just a leaping-off point,” he explains. “They allow us to have flexibility. They’re the plan. We take it to our cinematographer and improvise a little bit. It’s a real creative sort of liberation for us to have that in our back pocket. When something unexpected comes up on the set, it’s easier for us to pivot when we already have this bulletproof game plan.”

Are two heads better than one when it comes to directing a film? No problem, says Eshom: “My brother and I grew up in a rural environment where you either get along or get extremely lonely. Fortunately, we get along. I think there are two types of siblings: those who can’t and never could work together, and the rest of us who have become intertwined, almost co-dependent, over the years. We complement each other really well, and we’ve learned to feed off each other’s strengths and make our work better together. He and I are very synched up as far as our tastes go—the movies we like, our sensibilities—but we both have different strengths in writing and directing. My brother is tenacious. He can talk about a scene and then show up on my doorstep the next morning with five pages of it written. I’m more meticulous, always scrutinizing about the plot and how all these pieces go together. That’s how it goes when we do any sort of work together. Ian’s the kind of guy who always likes to jump off a cliff and will figure out how to build a parachute on the way down.”

In Nelms numbers, this marks their fifth feature film, but, given its quirky, expert craftsmanship, it qualifies as their breakthrough into the mainstream. Their other films—and shorts—have quietly been accumulating awards on the festival circuit.

“It’s hard to keep track of the shorts,” says Eshom. “I want to say five or six. We made more, but they don’t all go out in the world. We did two ultra-low-budget features on DVX-100 cameras at first. That’s how we really figured it all out.”

The brothers and their dad crewed their first feature, Squirrel Trap, which was shot up near their home right on the border of the Sequoia Forest. “We’d all take turns lighting it and getting the microphone and setting up the camera,” Eshom recalls. “We had five actors and shot it all in ten days, then edited it on our home computers.”

“It was, basically, our film school,” chimes in Ian. “The plot was about a small group of community-college students who are out on a three-day weekend to write a piece about Thoreau coming back to the wilderness. One of them goes off his meds, there’s a bunch of personality clashes, and they drive each other a bit crazy. It never turns into a horror film or anything, but it definitely has some sort of thriller aspects and redemptive qualities to it as these people try to figure out their own problems.”

The fact that any kind of film at all emerged from this exercise amazed and inspired their film-school friends, who quickly signed up for a second. “Night of the Dog was a very collaborative effort,” admits Ian. “The root of that film was men dealing with women. We’d all broken up with girlfriends at the time, so we said, ‘Let’s write a twenty-minute short about our female woes.’ The idea was to make it like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, intercutting like Traffic. We have all of these storylines running together, but the thing was, we all start at the same place and we all finish at the same place.”

The result—a full-blown comedy—made the circuit rounds, winning the Golden Vision Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and Audience Award at the Palm Beach Film Festival and the Best Screenplay Award at the SMMASH Film Festival. It also won them representation and the attention of Miramax and Focus Features.

James Lafferty, Dale Dickey and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer were aboard opus #3, Lost on Purpose, and every film that followed—a veritable Nelms Stock Company.

Ian lightly refers to their third feature as “our dairy epic. It was inspired by the crisis our neighbors, the blue-collar dairy workers, went through. Statistically, it went from 3,000 independent dairy farms to 300, just because these conglomerates came in and independent dairies were getting wiped out. We focused on Baby Boomers who were living it and the Generation X who were coming up trying to figure it out.”

It likewise made festival killings at the Beverly Hills Film Festival, the FirstGlance Film Festival, the ReelHeART Film Festival, the TrindieFest and the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. At one of the above, the brothers were approached by writer-producer Autumn McAlpin about making a movie of Waffle Street, financier James Adams’ 2010 memoir about his riches-to-rags foray into the food industry.

“Autumn had written a script, but it would have blown up to a $20 million script,” remembers Ian. “She’d done a lot of great things with it, but it had gotten really big, and she was lost in the size of it. She said, ‘Would you mind taking the path of my script and directing it?’ We were excited to do so and came on. Within three months of writing the script, we were casting it. Six months after that, we were shooting it.”

Waffle Streetwound up with the Woodstock Film Festival’s inaugural “Carpe Diem” Award for Best Film as well as Best Narrative Film at the Hollywood Film Festival.

In these first five films, the Nelms Brothers leave the distinct impression of having done one of everything. Diehard auteurists may dislike that, but that’s OK with Ian.

“Some of our favorite filmmakers jump genres all the time,” he points out. “Kubrick is the best example. Every seven years he’d come out with an opus unlike anything he’d ever done. I think it’s really challenging and exciting, and it keeps you fresh.”

The trade papers report that the brothers have just signed with ICM and LBI, which should enlarge their horizons and film budgets immeasurably. “Hopefully, in this next chapter of our careers,” says Eshom, “we will do more ambitious material. We’ve got a couple of ideas for television series, and we definitely want to enter that world. But in the meanwhile, we have a few more stories that we want to tell on the thriller side of it. There are few things we enjoy more than a good crime story.”

Pictured above: Ian and Eshom Nelms, Stefanie Scott, Robert Forster and John Hawkes.