“We may all be sliding towards the edge, but it’s up to you how comfortable you are doing it,” says Clayton Minor (an electrifying Stephen Dorff), near the beginning of Nicholas Maggio’s feature debut Mob Land. Clayton has just coolly pistol-whipped a gun shop employee near to death to impress upon the owner the need to repay his debts. As a mob enforcer, Clayton brings those whom he visits right up to, or even beyond, the edge of death, and he is philosophical about mortality – other people’s, and his own. “We’re all going in the same direction”, he will later say.
Recently diagnosed with cancer (but still smoking), Bodie Davis (John Travolta) is also well acquainted with the proximity of death, while the small town where he serves as sheriff is slowly dying from unemployment, despair and addiction. “This whole place has become a fucking cliché,” Trey (Kevin Dillon) will say of the town, “First the factories fold, then no jobs, no hope, then these leeches, they come in, they suck what’s left off the bottom.” Feckless, shifty Trey is trying to persuade his brother-in-law – and Bodie’s nephew – Shelby Connors (Shiloh Fernandez) to join him in a stickup job, stealing cash from local OxyContin dealers. Shelby is Christian, adores his wife Caroline (Ashley Benson) and their young daughter Mila (Tia DiMartino), works hard, and races cars that he has built in his free time – but he is also secretly medicating against Parkinson’s disease, which, as Trey points out, even “killed Muhammad Ali”, and is insolvent, with bills mounting. So while Caroline and Mila are out of town, he reluctantly agrees to act as Trey’s getaway driver, and to cross over criminality’s edge where death looms that much closer.
This is where things swiftly go south, and Clayton shows up, sent in by his New Orleans boss Ellis (Robert Miano) to ‘pull the ripcord’ and silence permanently all involved. The regretful Shelby will realise the trouble he is in, and vainly wish things could go back to what they were, as Clayton co-opts him into riding along and helping clean up the mess, and Bodie, acting independently of his deputy (Timothy V. Murphy), circles in from a distance. Yet Clayton too, for all his cold-hearted relentlessness, follows a code, is driven by principle, and is entirely comfortable with sliding towards the edge.
When Clayton encounters working people – a diner waitress (Emily Tremaine), a gas station attendant (Tommy Kendrick) – he likes to ask them what they wanted to do when they were children, as opposed to what they have ended up doing now. It is a way of showing the American dream askew and at its dead end. For like the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men (2007), Jim Mickle’s Cold In July (2014) or David Mackenzie’s Hell Or High Water (2016), this is as much national elegy as crime caper, exposing a heartland that has long since lost its innocence and is in a terminal spiral of decline.
Mob Land is a moody neo noir, as the road down which Shelby and Clayton travel together assumes an existential trajectory, driven by Maggio and his co-writer Rob Healey’s laconic dialogue. “I didn’t ask for this shit,” Shelby will protest, only for Clayton to insist, firmly and correctly, “Yeah you did.” For, once Shelby has broken bad, there can be no stepping back from the edge, and what is coming is as inevitable as death itself. It is a bleak, melancholic portrait of a recessionary America in which goodness is readily tempted to evil even as nihilism limps its way to imperfect redemption.
strap: Nicholas Maggio’s melancholic neo noir reveals recession, crime and moral hopelessness in a smalltown America of lost dreams
© Anton Bitel