Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Earlier this year, cable network Lifetime released “The Hammer,” a made-for-TV movie involving a Nevada judge played by none other than Reba McEntire. Reba was reason enough for me to watch it, not to mention my curiosity about how Lifetime portrayed Nevada, my home state.
I was worried when the first scene started off in a brothel, then worried again at the slot machines coyly placed in a hotel lobby, then triply worried when Reba McEntire pronounced Nevada “Ne-VAH-da,” not “Ne-VA-da,” a mistake you never want to make in the Silver State (she does this right before announcing her character grew up in rural Tonopah, making her mispronunciation inexcusable, in my stubborn Nevada opinion).
But the longer I watched and the more gorgeous desertscapes I saw, the more my cynicism faded as I remembered that actually, yes, brothels do play a part in rural Nevada, and the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the airport I grew up going to all had slot machines stuffed in different corners. My prom (and homecoming, and Sadie Hawkins, and about every other milestone event) occurred in a casino. Who am I kidding — this is Nevada, for God’s sake — we’re proud of our “Wild West” roots.
“The Hammer” certainly leans into these roots, with snakeskin shoes and a murder mystery to boot. Reba McEntire plays Kim Wheeler, a judge for Nevada’s Fifth Judicial District Court, which comprises two massive counties in southern Nevada: Nye and Esmeralda.
Her character is based on the real life Kimberly Wanker, who currently serves as judge in these two counties and is one of the last remaining “traveling judges” in the United States. Based out of Pahrump in Nye County, Fifth District judges drive approximately 140 miles to Goldfield in Esmeralda County for district court hearings and approximately 166 miles to Tonopah (the Nye County seat) to serve the courthouse there, according to a 2019 edition of the Nevada Bar Association’s “Rural Court Column.” In the same column, Judge Wanker is described as the “first rural woman judge” in Nevada.
That identity is featured prominently in “The Hammer,” which portrays the challenges of being a woman of power in a male-dominated field. McEntire’s character faces criticism from her male colleagues about her ability to run a courtroom and is told that “rural Nevada is tough country… the Wild West … no place for a woman.”
This is an argument that makes no sense, as the “Wild West” has been shaped by women for as long as women have been there; it extends far beyond the pioneers who termed the region the “Wild West” (a phrase rooted in racist history against the Native people who have called the region home far longer than white settlers). Native women like Sarah Winnemucca left their mark in rural Nevada long before it was ever a state.
So rural Nevada is a place for a woman, and McEntire makes sure the viewer knows it throughout the entire movie. The story also features plenty of other strong female characters, including one played by Melissa Peterman, a name that should excite any fans of the sitcom “Reba.” (Sidenote: Reba McEntire’s eponymous series that aired for six years in the early 2000s is the first show I ever “binge-watched” thanks to the novelty of Netflix’s DVD-by-mail services, which are now officially a thing of the past after the company closed its doors to DVD customers this fall.)
“The Hammer” dives into other rural complexities, too. A key conflict in the movie revolves around a solar farm built near Tonopah, which the former Fifth District judge replaced by McEntire’s character had major problems with because of the environmental impact of such a development on the desert. This issue isn’t contrived: Nevada has been shaped by conflict over renewable energy development for years as locals contend with the reality of a “greener future” that is sure to disrupt desert habitat and frontline rural communities.
The movie packs a lot into 90 minutes and — for a made-for-TV Lifetime movie (no offense, Lifetime) — it depicts rural life pretty damn well, and makes it entertaining, too. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you’re worried you’ll go an hour and a half without seeing the queen of country music sing, don’t fret — there’s a sweet surprise at the end, which I encourage you to stick around long enough to enjoy.
You can watch Reba McEntire’s The Hammer on the cable channel Lifetime or streaming on Hulu.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.