You know the drill. A man gets out of prison and returns home. His old life is gone, but the wreckage remains. His friends are scattered. His enemies are powerful. There is no hope for escape. But maybe, just maybe, one last job, one last crime, one last ass-covering, will be all he needs to pull himself up and put his act back together. And then it all goes horribly wrong, of course.
Small Crimes, like so many neo-noirs, is all about a small pile of poor decisions rapidly growing into a large pile of poor decisions, until the whole thing topples over into chaos. But this one is especially nasty, particularly bloodthirsty, and completely unwilling to pull its punches. This movie has a mean streak…and it grins as it draws blood.
It’s easy to say the director E.K. Katz exploded onto the scene with 2013’s Cheap Thrills, but it would be more accurate to say he slid into view like a nasty prankster armed with a bag of twisted and unforgettable tricks. It’s one of the great feature debuts of the 21st century, a timely and grotesque riff on America’s increasingly desperate lower-class and the rich monsters willing to exploit them. Honestly, the most unfair problem facing Small Crimes is that it’s a very good movie living in the shadow of a gem. As far as sophomore slumps go, this one isn’t too bad.
Katz (who co-wrote the film with co-star Macon Blair) fills Small Crimes with a similar sense of suffocating dread, the kind of general, all-around badness that you can’t fully appreciate or understand until the water in the pot has reached full boil. The screenplay meticulously places one problem at a time on the plate of disgraced ex-cop Joe Denton (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), allowing his ongoing crisis to remain manageable until those various problems congeal, interlock, and go wrong all at once. From there, its spiral into hell, small town noir-style.
You see, the criminal that used to pay Joe for some extracurricular criminal activities is going to rat him out. Joe’s former partner in corrupt policing wants him to clean it all up. Joe’s parents aren’t comfortable having this unpredictable sociopath living under their roof. The naive nurse Joe seduces can’t comprehend the mess she’s wading into. And then there’s the unhinged Army reservist, the violent criminal with a torture pit, and the local prosecutor who is hellbent on bringing Joe down for some very personal reasons. It’s one helluva mess, and Katz takes great pleasure in building it all up so it can all fall down. And then catch fire. And then explode.
Katz is canny enough to fill each scene with reliable character actors, with Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver stealing the show as Joe’s increasingly impatient (and fearful) parents. But then there’s Gary Cole as that corrupt partner, Pat Healy playing against type as a hard-headed crime goon, Molly Parker as a quietly sad cat lady, Macon Blair as a vengeful dimwit, and Larry Fessenden as a coke-snorting strip club owner. It’s a murderer’s row of talent, all of them chewing on their dialogue and playing the kind of dangerous and tragic idiots who feel like they walked out of Blood Simple or Fargo. If anyone feels a bit lost, it’s Coster-Waldau, a fine actor whose American accent never seems to fit quite right inside his mouth.
There are moments where Katz feels a bit lost, too. He’s so able at directing those intense conversations, those intimate moments where characters stand too close and mean each other great harm, but he doesn’t have an eye for action quite yet. A shootout late in the film is incoherent at best, but it is quickly followed by a final scene (and a final shot) that sum up the film’s messy morality with shocking clarity. Small Crimes is about developing sympathy for the devil…and discovering that there’s always going to be a bit of devil in those you were already sympathetic toward. Katz and Blair’s screenplay also has a finely tuned ear for comedy, letting bad situations and idiotic behavior speak for themselves rather than drive an obvious point home.
Small Crimes isn’t Cheap Thrills, but that’s okay. It’s different enough to prove that Katz isn’t a one-trick pony while also being unpredictable and gnarly enough to prove that he’s not going soft on us. There’s a gas station paperback energy to this film: fast, mean, direct, and not concerned at all with your feelings. There’s a place for this kind of entertainment and Katz is pretty damn good at delivering it.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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