‘Mob Land’ Review: A Diverting But Derivative Crime Drama

Writer-director Nicholas Maggio may not have intended to be self-critical when, fairly early in his debut feature “Mob Land,” he has one character observe to another about their failing small Southern town, “This whole place has become a fucking cliché.” But the longer this slackly paced rural noir continues, the more that dialogue seems in retrospect like fair warning. Borrowing freely from “No Country for Old Men,” “Collateral” and maybe a dozen or so other superior films, Maggio has cobbled together a modestly diverting, effectively atmospheric but blatantly derivative crime drama sprinkled with a few joltingly nasty plot twists.

It helps a lot that the first-time feature filmmaker has cast just about every role with an actor fully committed to their part. Better still, some of the briefly glimpsed supporting players do their bit to ratchet up the suspense by conveying sweaty desperation, darkly comical fury, or both.

At one point, an underworld boss brusquely dismisses the affectations of his minion thusly: “This Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash bullshit — it’s tired. Straighten up.” At another point, an unfortunate lowlife facing heavily armed but obviously amateurish robbers asks his unwelcome guests: “What’s your favorite ‘Death Wish’ movie?” It’s part of a standard-issue threat that’s inevitable in this kind of crime story — basically a variation of “Do you guys have any idea whose money you’re stealing?” — but also a promise to ultimately get all Charles Bronson on their butts.

Actually, the two would-be desperadoes might have fared better going up against the late, great action star. Shelby (Shiloh Fernandez), a small-town mechanic and family man trying to succeed on the local racing circuit, takes part in the heist at a strip-mall pill mill only because he’s anxious to provide for his wife (Ashley Benson) and their young daughter (Tia Martino) after losing his job. And, perhaps more importantly, because he’s much too credulous when his reckless brother-in-law Trey (Kevin Dillon) promises that Shelby will just be along for the ride as a getaway driver and, besides, the place is guarded only by “slack-jaws with a pill problem.” Dillon does full justice to the film’s funniest line, when Shelby hesitates before donning a ski mask prior to the robbery: “What? Does it clash with your outfit?”

Naturally, nothing goes according to plan and, just as naturally, the robbery leads to mayhem and, worse, triggers the arrival of Clayton (Stephen Dorff), a relentless New Orleans mob enforcer who obviously has embraced Anton Chigurh as a role model. When he’s not peppering innocent bystanders with aggressively friendly queries about their ambitions, he’s philosophizing about the randomness of fate and the meaninglessness of life. That, or he’s killing people.

Meanwhile, local Sheriff Bodie Davis (John Travolta), stoically doing his duty despite a cancer diagnosis, plods through various crime scenes with a world-weariness that could easily be mistaken for laziness until he indicates just how sharply observant he is. During the opening moments, he is badly shaken, if not downright bereft, when he discovers while hunting in the woods that he only wounded a deer, and must put the animal out of its misery. Fortunately, his aim eventually improves.

To give Maggio fair credit, he conveys throughout “Mob Land” a keen sense of life, death and desperation in a small Deep South town where the economy has cratered and expectations have diminished, and where accidental death by oxycontin overdose has become so commonplace that no one seems shocked anymore by the latest fatality. Indeed, Trey actually uses the epidemic as part of his sales pitch while convincing Shelby to be his accomplice, claiming their crime will be an act of revenge against the outsiders who brought the addictive drug into their town to exploit the hopeless. Shelby doesn’t argue the point too aggressively, probably because he’s been using medication himself for reasons not explained until late in the movie.

Nick Matthews’ hand-held camerawork is by turns arresting and distracting, but is well suited for sustaining tension in key scenes. Performances are persuasive across the board. Dorff is especially impressive as he keeps his purposefully amoral character’s philosophical musings from sounding too much like hackneyed pretentiousness. Fernandez never hits a false note as he traverses a wide range of emotions, while Travolta brings a welcome touch of moral gravitas to his role as a lawman who doesn’t appear to care when he’s underestimated, and occasionally takes an extralegal approach to restoring balance in his community. Whatever works.  

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