What if a film has a story whose tropes are very well known and its execution initially gives you hope that it will go somewhere in a totally new direction but ultimately doesn’t? The new film Mob Land, written and directed by Nicholas Maggio, suffers from its own genre conventions. The setting, the atmosphere, the thick accents, and the needle drops—all of them are unable to make the film fly. On the contrary, they, after a point, start to strangle the little life this film seems to have.
There is nothing that is out and out ‘bad’ about Mob Land, and yet one starts to beg the question, Why make this particular film now? The answer to that question is what should have illuminated each and every frame of the film, but Mob Land feels tired and dull right from its first frame. There is a kind of ether that envelops a good film, which is also the answer to why it was made. That’s the case with every good film. It is what guides the directors to make choices and the actors to perform the way they do, and that is what seems missing from this otherwise well-crafted crime drama.
The story of Mob Land takes place in Dixie, a small town in Alabama. There is no real hustling and bustling going on here. The life of someone living in Dixie is characterized by someone living a peaceful life, doing their job, and loving their family. Nothing fancy like some of the other parts of America, where the mind gets infested with the no-holds-barred version of the ‘American Dream. Here stays our protagonist (although that’s questionable), Shelby Conners, played by Shiloh Fernandez. He has a job, courtesy of the good people around him, and he takes care of his lovely family. He is a racer as well, but there is no real money in that gig. But as we know, there has to be a change in order for the story to progress, and that change comes in the form of an idea given to Shelby by his brother-in-law, Trey.
Trey was probably involved in peddling drugs, and after being in the business for some time, he had the idea of robbing a local clinic from where the operation was being handled, at least in Dixie. Trey needs a partner for some reason, maybe because he knows that there will be two guards handling the money. So, to be even numbered, whom does he ask? Shelby, of course. Does he accept it? He has to, as he then loses his job.
This story, up until now, might sound familiar. There are countless versions of it out there. The robbery will not go smoothly, and that’s quite predictable. Even someone who hasn’t watched a single film might predict what’s going to happen because of the brooding tone. Not just that, the characters are amateurs. Shelby has some health issues, and he takes pills to calm himself down. It turns out he had Parkinson’s. Just before the robbery, Trey had a little bit more convincing to do. Here, the philosophy of the film began to take shape. The ‘big city’ monsters feast on the meek small-town simpletons. The operation was related to selling ‘oxy’ pills and making addicts out of the population.
The ‘big city’ monster is embodied by a hitman named Clayton, who comes to sort the matter out for his boss. He seems to be a killing machine, but the caveat is that he doesn’t kill innocents. He does have a funny way of making criminals out of everyone so that he can kill them. Stephen Dorrf’s performance as the force of evil has to be appreciated. He really has tried to make something of this role, which appears out of nowhere. Perhaps this is where the film assumed too much. The small Dixie is seen, as Nicholas Maggio wanted us to see it.
The characters’ daily lives were painstakingly shown. But whatever his vision of the ‘big cities,’ we are never witnesses to that. So, the contrast to life in Dixie is missing, which is what I believe Maggio was aiming for. Oh, and did I miss that there is John Travolta in this movie as the town sheriff, Bodie Davis? There was this subplot of him discovering he had cancer, which really had no impact on anything. He was simply the archetypal sheriff, always around the corner, ready to neatly tie up the plot. The references from films like No Country for Old Men are taken skillfully, but they are not allowed to come into their own. Maybe that’s what the film lacked—some genuine, interesting mistakes.
Shelby, after getting his hands dirty in Trey’s heist plan, was now in the jaws of the big city monsters. They could do whatever they liked. He represented the meaning of the rural way of life, while Clayton represented the nihilism of the urban way. The scenario was written in such a way that these two worlds came together for a while. Clayton, walking to his rhythm, had the audacity to ask the people of Dixie what they did for fun before they, too, ended up dead in the meaningless place. Well, Shelby had a long answer for him, and it did change Clayton, but that’s when the film revealed that it just didn’t have any idea how to enrich this metaphor apart from plain dialogue. The songs were just tiring after a while, and it almost started to seem like Maggio, whenever he was unsure of how to keep the audience engaged or transition into the next scene, used a song to pace things up.
Mob Land is a lost opportunity at best. It’s not shallow. It has some depth, even though it was not fully realized. John Travolta is wasted in the part. Dorff does most of the heavy lifting, and Shiloh is given situations where it is just impossible to act without looking silly. The novel-esque prose did not necessarily translate well into the dialogues. All the choices summed up point to this: the film traversed a well-trodden path where nothing can grow. It will be a good exercise for future filmmakers who are interested in this genre to see Mob Land and come up with a plotline that could revitalize the film at any given moment. As for the general audience, there are better films that present their philosophy in a much more cinematic way. Go search!