John Swab is literally one of the most prolific filmmakers in the industry right now. And while quantity doesn’t necessarily always equate to sustained quality, Swab consistently hones his writing and directing skills and is carving out a reputation as one of the most exciting filmmakers of our generation. What sets him apart from his peers is the fact that he’s game to tackle any genre out there, and when he does, he approaches them head-on, subverting formulaic tropes and injecting a variety of distinctive touches to make each film feel familiar whilst still managing to throw his audience onto the back foot.
Little Dixie is a perfect testament to this preamble: a trailblazing, retro-tinged revenge thriller brimming with intricate characters, poignant performances, curveballs aplenty, and all topped off with lashings of deftly executed brute violence.
The screenplay is the ideal vehicle for protagonist Frank Grillo, allowing him to flex both his action star and stirring, dramatic muscles playing the ultimate anti-hero, Doc, an ex-Special Forces operative now working as a go-between for his power-grubbing, long-standing military crony, Oklahoma Governor Richard Jeffs (Eric Dane), and a Mexican drug cartel that has been funding the Governor’s campaign. But when Jeffs publicly announces an initiative to crack down on cartel initiatives, ignoring warnings from his Chief of Staff (Annabeth Gish), a possible truce between the two factions falls apart and chaos ensues.
With his family dragged into the fray, Doc is left with no option but to follow through on a task he’s assigned by the cartel, going to whatever lengths are necessary to protect the only true source of pride and joy he has left in his life: his young daughter, “Little Dixie”.
The best crime movies are often only as good as their villains, and when cartel boss Lalo Miguel Prado (Maurice Compte) dispatches his half-brother Cuco (Beau Knapp) to Oklahoma to take care of business, John Swab’s shrewd move to dedicate far more screen time on his villains than most movies of this ilk do really works to the film’s advantage. Knapp is a force to be reckoned with, delivering a persistently unsettling turn, and it’s a treat for the audience to get to spend so much more quality time with the antagonists of this kind of film than we usually get to.
Coupled with the richly rendered villains, the film is also cleverly buoyed by an extensive ensemble cast that adds some enigmatic leeway that allows Swab to keep the audience on its toes, never knowing who will make it out alive by the end of the film. And this inclusion such a wide roster of characters never feels overstretched or superfluous.
And we just couldn’t bring this review to a close without also mentioning the film’s relentless violence, which is also expertly staged. Much like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, which most people still consider to be one of the goriest films of all time, even though barely any blood was shed on the screen, Swab cunningly conceals specific grisly sequences – bathtub dismemberment moment, I’m looking at you – leaving it entirely up to the audience to conjure up truly horrific images of what’s happening but not actually seen.
Case in point: Little Dixie is the revenge thriller throwback this sub-genre sorely needed, and both the film itself and Swab are destined for cult status. Please keep them coming as fast and hard as you have done so far, John.