Director: Nicholas Maggio
Cast: Shiloh Fernandez, John Travolta, Kevin Dillon, Stephen Dorff, Ashley Benson, Tia DiMartino, Timothy V. Murphy, Robert Miano, Debra Nelson
Running time: 111 mins
Director Nicholas Maggio makes an impressive feature debut with this small town thriller, which he also scripted, from a story he co-wrote with Rob Healy. Dripping with atmosphere and featuring strong performances, it’s a strikingly bleak tale that takes a couple of unexpected turns along the way.
Set in smalltown Alabama, the film centres on Shelby (Shiloh Fernandez), a local mechanic and would-be racecar driver who’s trying to support his loving wife (Ashley Benson) and their adorable young daughter (Tia Martino). When his dodgy brother-in-law Trey (Kevin Dillon) persuades him to join him in sticking up a local pill-dealing operation, Shelby reluctantly agrees, but things quickly go wrong.
Shortly afterwards, ruthless mob enforcer Clayton (Stephen Dorff) arrives in town to track down those responsible and he ropes Shelby in to exacting his revenge. Meanwhile Sheriff Bodie Davis (John Travolta), who has a close relationship with Shelby’s family, sets about investigating the case, but is he out of his depth?
Judging by the posters for Mob Land, the film has been sold as a John Travolta movie, but that’s not really the case, as he’s only in a small handful of scenes. Instead it’s much more of a Stephen Dorff movie – his Clayton is a compellingly charismatic figure, even though he’s the literal embodiment of violence and death.
There are strong echoes of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men in the way the film plays out, with Dorff’s character essentially a variation on Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, taking time out of his murdering to have philosophical chats with waitresses, gas station attendants and various victims. To that end, the character’s relationship with Shelby comes as something of a surprise, since he doesn’t seem to leave witnesses around for long, and there’s an engaging sense of tension as to where the story is heading as a result.
Accordingly, top-billed Dorff is superb in the lead role, though the script can’t resist having a little fun at his expense – at one point a mob boss chastises him with the line, “This Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash bullshit — it’s tired. Straighten up.” Similarly, Kevin Dillon, who’s made a career out of playing dimbo losers, is on top form here and he makes the most of every line. As for Travolta, he doesn’t get to do very much, but he’s a solid presence nonetheless, even if his medical diagnosis subplot is decidedly underdeveloped.
The film’s most impressive aspect is its pervasively bleak, deeply pessimistic atmosphere, giving the film a real flavour of Southern Noir. To that end, Maggio does a great job of shading in little details, like the fact that there have been so many deaths from oxycontin in the community that they’re more or less taken for granted.
In fairness, the film isn’t entirely without flaws – there’s a loss of focus in the first half that slows the pace to a crawl, though it picks up again once Dorff’s character arrives in town. Similarly, it wouldn’t have killed the plot to have devoted a little more time to Travolta’s investigation, as what there is seems decidedly underwritten.
Ultimately, this is an intriguingly dark small-town thriller with a compellingly downbeat, nasty edge. It also marks out writer-director Nicholas Maggio as a talent to watch. Worth seeing.
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