Director – Nicholas Maggio – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 110m
Needing money to pay off debts, a family man, mechanic and racer gets sucked into a robbery by his uncle, then finds himself working alongside a mob killer hired to clean up the loose ends of the crime – out in UK cinemas on Friday, August 25th
A small. rural town in the Southern States. Shelby Conners (Shiloh Fernandez) completely in love with wife Caroline (Ashley Benson) and devoted to young daughter Mia (Tina DeMartino), pops pills to get through the day and hasn’t yet told his wife about the mounting household bills. His uncle Trey (Kevin Dillon), the proud owner of an expensive, lurid lime green, Japanese car, offers him a way out in the form of a sure fire robbery about which Shelby is less than sure.
There’s this pills / meds store called the Happiness Pain Centre which, Trey explains, is turning over a huge amount of money a day and is only guarded by a couple of hicks, so it would be a pushover. And all Shelby needs to do is drive the car, something both men know he’s really good at, especially as Trey can provide the car to Shelby’s specification. His wife and daughter going away to Tupelo for the weekend provides Shelby with the perfect opportunity to help Trey execute the crime without Caroline knowing.
Although the stolen getaway car spec is as promised, the rest doesn’t quite work out that way, with the hooded Shelby handed a handgun at the last minute by the hooded Trey and asked to come along into the pills building, looking as though he would use the gun to kill. During the robbery, Trey shoots two people dead, leaves a couple of witnesses and is unaware of the car wash security camera that has captured images of the two masked assailants. Leaving, their car is pursued by a gunman who is in turn pursued by the local sheriff, Bodie Davis (John Travolta).
Then a stranger (Stephen Dorff) arrives in town, talking to a waitress (Emily Tremaine) at the local diner about how most people drift through life without purpose before setting out on his own pre-ordained path: to clean up the aftermath of the crime on behalf of a mob boss (Robert Miano from Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell, 1997; Fear City, 1984, China Girl 1987, and The Funeral 1996, all Abel Ferrara), Suddenly, Shelby is in even further over his head, and must carry out some of the killings for the fearsome stranger…
That plot doesn’t really explain the great strengths of this film, namely its network of believable characters. The sheriff is a family friend of Shelby and Caroline, often coming round for supper and running into the criminally inclined Trey, who is never pleased to see a representative of the Law. Shelby chats with Miss Whitney the very religious, black Christian lady who works at the local Savings and Loan where he deposits his hard-earned money; the Christian faith also comes up In the fact that Caroline (and possibly her whole family) are church attenders, with Sheriff Bodie saying he doesn’t like the new pastor much, since Bodie himself is more a fire and brimstone kind of guy.
The waitress who talks to the incoming hitman seems to represent something of simple, small town goodness contrasted with a purposeful, urban, money-driven, self-centred evil, disdainful of everything she represents. That goodness is further explored not only in Shelby and Caroline’s family life, but also in the working relationship between Bodie and his matter-of-fact deputy Ben (Timothy V. Murphy). And it’s mirrored in the badness of the hitman’s relationships – his disdain for ordinary folk represented by the waitress, his ruthless manipulation of Shelby, and his relationship with his mobster employer who threatens to kill him should he ever again light a cigarette in his car.
The action scenes when they come are gripping, brutal and devastating, always built upon the sure foundation of strong characterisation. In both regards, first time writer-director Nicholas Maggio displays a sure touch, although for this writer the core of the film is far stronger than its near-redundant opening and close; I could have easily done without the five minutes of extraneous exposition at the beginning and lopped around six scenes off the end when the film carries on listlessly and pointlessly after a near perfect possible ending.
Numerous welcome bit parts include not only Travolta – probably the highest profile presence here, terrific as the sheriff – but also Fernandez as the out of his depth lead, leading lady Benson and child DeMartino (even if both are absent for most of the film), petty criminal uncle Dillon, deputy sheriff Murphy, waitress Tremaine and truly nasty mob boss Miano. However it’s far more than an ensemble character study; once you get into its main body, this is also a terrific crime thriller. Such a shame that the extraneous beginning and ending let it down so badly.
Mob Land is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 25th.