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Best Small-Town Crime Films, Ranked 

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The crime film has so many neat little sub-genres. One of the best is the small-town crime film. The small-town crime genre is often full of locals familiar with each other’s past, present, and some idea of where their future lay. The small-town crime genre gives directors and actors the ability to play with those specific provocations. Whether it be disparate working people on the economic margins looking to make a big score or the alarming amount of evil that creeps into their way of life, disrupting the simplicity of a small town, these films often wrestle with big moral and ethical questions.

The small-town crime genre is rich with great work from talented directors. Especially the Coen Brothers who could’ve had at least three entries on this list alone: Fargo, Raising Arizona, and Blood Simple,, to name a few. But, what gets to the heart of what makes this genre so much fun to talk about is the varied approaches to showcasing the horrors of brutal violence seeping into a more modern society. It’s a collision of lifestyles and one that very few people can reckon with. As such, here are the best small-town crime films, ranked.

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Abandoning the provocations of body horror to instead illicit true terror in the form of small-town crime, A History of Violence is a film that keeps you on your toes. Viggo Mortensen perfectly fills the shoes of Cronenberg as the leading man protagonist who has to wrestle with the unsanctioned violence that wanders into his family-owned diner. After Mortensen becomes a hero for disposing of some crooks, Cronenberg’s film shows how a generation of violence can seep into the everyday. While also walking on a razor’s edge with the film’s twists and turns.

Related: Best David Cronenberg Movies, Ranked

In a town full of feuding corrupt police officers, including some retired and came to the small New Jersey suburb for tax benefits, Cop Land is a film stacked to the tee with great actors that are at each other’s throats. Sylvester Stallone plays the lone morally bound sheriff, whose quiet nature leads him to be a pushover for all the corrupt cops. Harvey Keitel leads a troop at odds with Figgsy (an always intense Ray Liotta) because his old partner was killed, so Figgsy starts to harbor resentment. The film turns the small Jersey town into a classic western. Full of malicious, corrupt cops taking the law and undermining it to no end, the film builds to an epic shootout.

In the vein, of nasty revenge B-movies but with far more on its mind courtesy of Paul Schrader’s script, Rolling Thunder dives right into the American landscape at its most merciless and desolate. Disillusioned with reality upon returning home from Vietnam, Major Rane (William Devane) attempts to readjust after spending years as a POW. What he finds is a straight path to violence, as ruthless thugs raid his home and take his hand. Directed by Johnny Flynn, the film delves deep into small-town Americana at is dirtiest and lowly. The setting offers no salvation for its characters, only judgment by the end of a gun barrel.

The swampy confines of rural life in the south during the 60s had its nebbish racism and lawlessness. In The Heat Of The Night — a seminal American classic — Norman Jewison uses the trappings of a noir, murder mystery to show what it’s like for a person of color to navigate. Sidney Poitier’s legendary grace and charisma were perfect for Virgil Tibbs, a big-city homicide detective who unwillingly becomes ensnared in a murder case because of a run-in with the local chief, played by Rod Steiger. The film has an unsettling, mysterious atmosphere that puts us in the shoes of Tibbs as he has to navigate this ugly landscape and still do his job uninterrupted. A classic film that went on to win 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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