We like our killers with compassion. The James Bonds, Ethan Hunts, and John Wicks of the world wouldn’t intentionally kill an innocent bystander for being in the way; that would shatter the illusion that, no matter their body count, these are our heroes. Even our antiheroes seemingly need some relatable morsel of empathy; if Dexter or Tony Soprano killed a toddler, we couldn’t look past all the other horrible minutiae of their daily violence.
While Frank Grillo‘s character doesn’t murder a baby in Little Dixie, Doc is far from the antiheroes we are used to. He’s surgical, mechanical, amoral in his pursuit, and he almost makes Cuco, the psychotic hit man who’s kidnaped his daughter, look likable; at least Cuco has some personality. This isn’t a criticism of Doc as a character, but rather a defining quality of a man who has become so numb to death and destruction that he’s practically the perfect person to carry out a political assassination, or else.
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Frank Grillo and Beau Knapp Get Violent in Little Dixie
Little Dixie introduces us to Doc, a former special forces operative who acts as a kind of go-between for nefarious activity. A drug cartel has been giving dark money to politicians in order to operate and avoid the heavier scale of justice, and Doc is the man who runs between the cartel and the politicians. When a governor makes the serious mistake of celebrating the execution of a drug lord’s family member, and then decides to pursue the war on drugs, things go worse than anyone could’ve imagined.
Doc is close to both sides of this conflict, and always seems to be the most competent man in the room. When his daughter is kidnaped by Cuco, Doc is told to bring him the governor’s head on a silver platter — pretty much literally. As Doc’s allies start dropping dead and turning on him, he stocks up on guns, ammunition, and a chainsaw in order to get his daughter back.
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Little Dixie alternates between Doc’s mission and Cuco’s, building tension as their paths inevitably collide. In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. With his immaculate suit, coiffed hair, and upright stance, Doc is like the president’s best bodyguard, the one you don’t even see. Cuco is a bulky, bald, mouth-breathing beast in tracksuits and perpetual sunglasses. However, they both have deep damage which has led them to become so desensitized to violence — and so good at it.
Little Dixie Nods to the Killers of Past Films
Doc and Cuco are two fascinating, minimalist characters, and Little Dixie is their film. The slightest of expository hints about their characters provides psychological clues but leaves them enigmatic enough to still be interesting, despite being different forces of violence caught up in a tailspin together. Beau Knapp is a true revelation here as Cuco. He’s a terrifying, funny, pathetic, and cool oddball at once.
Grillo is great in a very restrained, efficient way. It’s a far cry from the much more emotive and complicated character he did so well in last year with the trucker thriller Paradise Highway, and even though Doc is a seemingly simpler character, he’s almost more magnetic. Grillo slides into the kind of quietly intense and unpredictable, violent and ethically indifferent characters from some of the greatest thrillers of all time. He brings to mind Lee Marvin in Point Blank, Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, and even a bit of Tom Cruise in Collateral.
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Like those films, Little Dixie isn’t about what one normally considers to be ‘good acting’ — character development, powerful dialogue, emotional fluidity, etc. No, Little Dixie brings to mind the thrillers of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville because the acting is a vibe. The performances in Little Dixie (including a confident Eric Dane and the incredibly underrated genius Peter Greene) are like mood rings that the film gracefully wears, adding to the atmosphere and style of the whole piece.
John Swab Does His Best with a Small Budget
Filmmaker John Swab (who worked with Grillo on Body Brokers and Ida Red) has a great ability to mimic the elevated, timeless thrillers of the past despite a relatively small budget. Few other directors right now can make such a stylish, tense thriller with strong performances for less than $2 million. Swab and his crew find excellent locations, use inventive lighting, and create a sparseness in the frame, almost as if this was a lo-fi, arthouse John Wick.
It’s a stylish film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve, from the aforementioned films to the bizarre Western fever dream, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Its use of violence has a moral ambiguity and swift realness to it that’s often surprising and well-executed. The budget does show in some of the bloodshed, as certain shootouts appear to be digitally bloodied; good old-fashioned squibs are always preferable, but just more difficult to film.
Despite that rare cheapness, the realistic violence still has the power to shock in its relentlessness and occasional abruptness. Doc goes into soldier mode when he’s tasked with killing the governor to get his daughter back; as Grillo himself told MovieWeb, he’s “like a surgeon doing open-heart surgery for the 3000th time.” There is no hesitation, few of those obnoxious dialogue scenes which delay the inevitable kill, and no sentimentality or melodrama.
Doc isn’t the hero we want, and he isn’t the hero we need; he isn’t even a hero. He’s a man on a mission, and we have the pleasure to watch. Produced by Roxwell Films in association with Three Point Capital, Paramount Pictures is releasing Little Dixie in select theaters, on digital, and on demand on February 3, 2023.
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