With Small Crimes, Evan “E.L.” Katz joins the ranks of Jeremy Saulnier, Macon Blair and others who’ve embrace a dark, degenerate microcosm of rural Americana. It’s a growing trend, where backwoods suburbia morphs into a moral cesspool. Be it Nazi skinheads who board up a punk club or a crooked cop plunged into the same dark waters he previously emerged from, those like Katz have no problem kicking a few horses when they’re down. This makes for dead-end tension and minimal options, but sometimes there’s just a little too much hopelessness to go around. We’re all creatures of habit (can a criminal really reform?), but audiences need something to believe in – that’s the struggle here.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars as Joe Denton, a disgraced ex-cop who’s coming off a six-year prison stint. Denton – a father of two – wants nothing more than a second chance. Regret seems to have shaped a necessary strive for betterment, but his past has other plans. Within no-time, Denton is informed (by his dirty ex-partner played by Gary Cole) that new evidence could land him back in the slammer, or even worse, on death row. Now, a resentful D.A. (Michael Kinney), a screwy war vet (Macon Blair) and a mob boss’ son (Pat Healy) all have their sights set on Denton. At least he was clean for a few hours of freedom.
Small Crimes is, admittedly, a carefully-stacked Jenga tower that’s ready to come crumbling down. As Katz (and co-writer Macon Blair) remove blocks, one by one, they’re placed atop a swaying structure that we so desperately want to fall. The buildup is calculated, always moving the safest piece and without flare. This plays into our understanding of Denton’s past, since we’re not overloaded with background information from the start. Scene by scene, we more fully understand a dirty cop who’s spit on, cursed out and disgraced by every law officer in a hundred mile radius. Fully deserved, and unloaded in manageable portions that allow for a slow, easy release.
Unfortunately, the slower pace of Denton’s journey makes it hard to stay invested in one narcissist’s wake of mayhem. He’s a man who preaches reform, which translates into a “no killing” clause. Still capable of wrongdoing, still ignorant of what his sobriety chip means, but at least it makes sense considering death is the only other viable alternative. We watch as Coster-Waldau stumbles his way through coincidental victories that are typically not of his own doing, as characters kill one another and tease some sort of hope for Katz’ irredeemable anti-hero (piece of trash, really). Engagement never fully kicks in, but intrigue still sputters as Denton is beaten to shit around every corner he turns.
Katz assembles a dynamite cast of character actors who chew their way through angry, last-ditch dramatics, but Coster-Waldau doesn’t always feel at home. Gary Cole’s no-bullshit lawman loves tightening the noose around Denton, especially when trying out his taser. Pat Healy wields this New Yorker greasiness as Junior Vassey, a psychotic gangster who refuses to protect Denton like Papa Vassey once did. Molly Parker fills Denton with hope as Charlotte Boyd, a soft-spoken sweetheart who’s warmth is necessary for establishing a possible happy ending. Then there’s Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver as Denton’s nurturing-yet-unconvinced parents. These are all more interesting arcs than Coster-Waldau’s predictable spiral straight back down, especially with an accent that wavers in and out of local relevance.
There’s no denying that Small Crimes ends on the heavy, explosive down-note that Evan Katz so handily teases, but the journey will not please everyone. Joe Denton’s tragic inability to expel any venom from his soul is ripe with posed redemption, yet repetitive in its crotch-shot nature. It’s a slow, SLOW burn that tickles more than excites, and puts a central focus on arguably the film’s least interesting character. Choices lead to consequences, consequences lead to chaos, and unfortunate bystanders find themselves caught in a figurative/literal gunfight all instigated by one selfish man. More of a postcard to grizzled genre fare than an out-and-out love-letter. Just don’t expect Katz to best the dark, relentless brilliance of Cheap Thrills with his sophomore release.
Small Crimes is a dark Americana thriller filled with side-characters who are infinitely more interesting than the narcissistic lead.