Sue Parker (Willa Holland) tends bar in a small college town in North Louisiana. Here class divisions are demarcated by the river running through the town centre, with massive shoreline mansions on one side and trailers on the other. As Sue states in the voiceover which opens The Dirty South, this Bible Belt community is full of “minor sinners”, as well as the “small-town bullshit” that “anyone from a small town knows.” Everyone is caught up in everyone else’s business, and live tensions often go back generations. It is both the perfect setting both for a dynastic crime story, and a microcosm of a polarised America.
For his feature debut, writer/director Matthew Yerby offers a tale of two families. The bar where Sue works may be owned by her alcoholic father Gary (Wayne Pére), but she effectively runs it, constantly clearing up his messes while also playing mother to her little brother Jacob (Caleb Quinney) in the absence of their real mother Gina (Michelle Mustard) who has long since flown the coop. Sue is stuck – in this town, and in a broken family where only she shows any responsibility. Yet everything – both the bar, and the plot of land that the Parkers call home – is about to be taken away by the Roys from across the river. Rich property owners, Jeb (Dermot Mulroney) and his wife Jo Ann (Laura Cayouette) are acquisitive by nature, but also harbour a personal grudge against Gary. Now that their own son Mark (Andrew Vogel), who briefly courted Sue in high school, has graduated from Princeton and is back in town, they hope to keep him as far away from Sue as possible, even if that means forcing the Parkers out of town.
It is never clear whether the Roys’ aversion to a union between Mark and Sue is rooted in straight-up classism, or in an anxiety about incest (Gary and Jo Ann were an item shortly before she married Jeb and had Mark) – but in a town that is at least metaphorically incestuous, Sue will turn to an outsider, the smooth thief Dion (Shane West), in her desperation to raise the $30,000 needed to prevent the foreclosure of her bar and home. Just passing through, but from a family as damaged as Sue’s, Dion craves a fixed address and a sense of belonging no less than she longs to get away, and even as they engage in ever more perilous crimes together, these two will come to realise that each provides what the other lacks.
Dion is a talented pickpocket who can hold his own in most situations, and when asked by Sue if he kills people too, he quickly qualifies his negative answer with the corrective that he “ain’t never killed nobody for money”, but did ‘just once’ kill for reasons closer to home. This is The Dirty South in a nutshell, as small crime escalates, as violence begets violence, as theft leads to murder, and as all the bad blood proves as much personal as professional. Already living on the wrong side of the law no less than of the river, the Parkers may, along with Dion, be pushed beyond their normal limits and quietly engage in atrocity and cover-up, but Yerby traces a careful contrast between their genuine do-or-die struggle to survive, and the crimes of the more comfortable Roy family, motivated by expansionism and pure greed. It is a dirty, messy portrait of home, family and class, where everyone, despite focusing on difference, is more closely related than they might imagine, at least in their hopes, aspirations and battered (American) dreams. For at its heart, this clan feud between the haves and the have-nots plays out like a modern western, where all property is theft.
strap: Matthew Yerby’s small-town crime saga plays out America’s divisions of class as a modern Western
© Anton Bitel