As a crime film, Hammer is enjoyable enough. It’s simple, tense, and always surprising. At heart, though, the film is a family drama, presenting crime not just as a sensationalist thrill ride, but in the context of a suburban family being torn apart – and brought back together – by its consequences. While a drug deal gone wrong may seem like an unusual backdrop for your standard family bonding exercise, this proves to be a perfect context for exploring the repercussions of one person’s actions on his own life and those who care about him. Hammer explores the challenges of coming to terms with a family member’s criminal past through an adrenaline fueled rush to deal with their more immediately problematic criminal present.
After getting arrested and spending some time away from the criminal life, Chris (Mark O’Brien) calls up his old drug dealing contact Adams (Tom Cotton) for another job, and heads across the border to deliver two hundred thousand dollars in cash. The deal goes south when a man on a motorcycle attempts to steal the money, only to be immediately thwarted by Adams. Adams quickly pieces together that his girlfriend Lori (Dayle McLeod) helped Chris plan the whole exchange as a way to double cross him and make off with the profits. The couple’s relationship troubles deepen when they exchange a pair of gunshot wounds before Chris and Lori escape with the duffel bags. Once they are a healthy distance away from Adams, Chris dumps Lori and his cargo in a cornfield where they will be safe until he can come up with a plan.
Meanwhile, Chris’ dad, Stephen (Will Patton) is having his own problems at home. His wife Karen (Vickie Papavs) is pushing to have her ailing father move into Chris’ old bedroom, which has been vacant since they kicked him out of the house following his prior arrest. Even though Stephen hasn’t spoken to Chris in over a year, he’s hesitant to take this step. While out on a drive, Stephen sees his son whizzing by on a motorcycle, covered in blood, and decides it’s time for a good old fashioned father-son chat. As soon as he learns that there’s a wounded, possibly dead girl in cornfield somewhere, Stephen tells his son to get in the car and drives back to the cornfield to find her. The situation continues to spiral when Lori’s body goes missing, Adams takes Chris’ brother Jeremy (Connor Price) hostage, and Stephen is sucked progressively further into Chris’ web of lies.
Hammer’s father-son dynamic is always a complicated one, never more so than when you’re being chased by an armed drug dealer together. The film is driven by Will Patton’s strong performance as a man suffering under the weight of both guilt and burden. A retired teacher with a reputation for giving his students cigarettes and encouraging his sons to get into fights with other kids at school, Stephen is no saint. He comfortably, if reluctantly, adapts to his new roles as accomplice/savior and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to save his children. When a jeweler tries to rip Chris off and questions Stephen’s parenting skills in the process, the prideful parent wastes no time attacking and robbing the man himself. When Chris needs to hire a semi-hitman to take care of Adams, he drives his son to the man’s door. When bodies need to be buried, he’ll be there to hold the other end of the tarp. Basically, he’s both a great father and a terrible one, all at the same time.
Stephen’s love for Chris runs deep, as does the guilt he carries for abandoning his son. As Jeremy says, if you treat someone like an outsider, they become an outsider. After a year apart, Stephen remains angry at Chris for making poor life choices, yet he questions the decision to kick his son out of the house, not willing to risk him falling back into old patterns. At one point when tearing through the cornfields, Stephen and Chris stumble upon a snake quite literally eating its own tail. Like the snake, the family is stuck in a self-destructive cycle of crime, abandonment, and violence. Stephen’s struggle is the classic curse of parenthood — having to let your children make their own mistakes while feeling responsible for them. In the end, he must decide not just whether to step back in and be a father to his estranged child, but how far he’s willing to go to do it.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
Hammer tells a simple story with a small cast, short runtime, few locations, and minimalist score. Still, it takes full advantage of all these elements to craft an intriguing and exciting character study full of suspense, action, and emotion. Strong performances from Patton and O’Brien and gritty realism keep the crime story grounded, while the frantic pace keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s a wild ride that is well worth the price of admission.