Evan Katz film

SMALL CRIMES Review: A Scummy, Mostly Enjoyable Morality Tale

Monday, May 01, 2017 Rob Samuelson

In Small Crimes, protagonist Joe is a criminal with lofty ambitions that he is woefully unable to realize. Killing and maiming people landed the former dirty cop (he’s still dirty, but no longer a cop) in prison for six years and cost him his wife and two daughters, whom he claims to miss a whole lot. He doesn’t want to be the kind of crook who hurts people anymore, but, well, the bodies pile up faster than they ever did before.

Photo credit: Small Crimes/IMDb

The problem with Joe, played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is that he always does the bare minimum -- giving 110 percent isn’t really his thing. His eyes widen excitedly whenever he is offered the opportunity to get out of a situation that requires him to care about another human being. He can’t even be bothered to have a serious conversation with his elderly parents (Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver) about his future, even though they were kind enough to let him live in their basement. Joe brushes his concerned and not-buying-his-crap parents’ questions off and pretends like he’s accomplished something when all he has done in reality is busy work. To show how “serious” he is about making changes to his life, he flashes a sobriety token from Alcoholics Anonymous like it’s a badge of honor. But, as his skeptical mother points out, it’s not difficult to stay sober when you’re locked away from alcohol for six years.

Immediately upon leaving prison, Joe returns to criminality, although he swears it’s just about tying up some of the loose ends that sent him to jail in the first place. Director Evan Katz is quick to call out Joe for his perpetual lies. Katz’s camera shows us Joe’s private moments as he rehearses his less-than-truthful monologues and sob stories to manipulate those around him. It lingers over his skeptical parents every time he tosses a fresh lie their way. If the color scheme of the film had a more vibrant look than the dreary green-and-gray one it has (i.e. the standard “indie film on Netflix” look), the solid mechanics of Katz’s camerawork would pop even more, but this is a minor complaint.

It is tragic enough to see Joe’s long-suffering folks struggle in their attempts to balance their desire for forgiveness with their well-earned “fool me twice, shame on me” attitude. But where the film shines is in how Katz, through Coster-Waldau’s performance as one of recent cinema’s most memorable scumbags, showcases the way a compulsive liar can rope an innocent stranger into a conscience-shattering spiral simply by being clever and charming.

That innocent stranger is Charlotte (Deadwood’s Molly Parker). She is a hospice nurse who cares for Joe’s former crime boss, one of those loose ends Joe needs to tie up. He needs to get close to the ailing man so he can play angel of death on the guy, but the man’s sadistic son, Junior (Pat Healy, playing a wildly different character from the dweeb he was in Cheap Thrills, his last collaboration with Katz), would rather see Joe dead standing on his father’s property, Joe’s out of luck. Charlotte’s a sweetheart who’s new to town and thus does not know about Joe’s background as the cop who sliced and diced a prosecuting attorney half a dozen years earlier. She’s hiding something about her past, too, but she leaves it unsaid, preferring to not let the past define who she is -- Joe treats her like a rube because of her belief in a person’s ability to change. She sees that he is using her for her access to his old boss, but to her knowledge he has not out to hurt her -- and he’s not purposely doing anything to harm her. She remains blissfully impervious to Joe’s evil for a time.

Small Crimes is a story told economically and even its most miniscule setups pay off spectacularly, in ways that are often hilarious and horrific simultaneously. Because of this, the climax disappoints greatly, at least as it pertains to Charlotte. Katz and Macon Blair adapted the otherwise drum-tight script from a novel by David Zeltserman, but they err in how to resolve her story. She makes a fateful decision, compromising her morality and safety to help Joe, and we don’t see her again. It fits with Joe’s penchant for running away from responsibility as soon as he can, but just because he treats the woman like garbage doesn’t mean the movie has to. Parker, who gives such a melancholy, eager-to-help performance, is left unable to reveal the full repercussions of her character’s choices. For a movie that is otherwise so correctly judgemental of Joe’s lying and cheating ways, it is a failure to leave Charlotte’s story this way. Hers is the only character whose relationship with Joe the viewer gets to see in its entirety. One can fill in the blanks as to what happens to her in the end, but to refuse complete closure for the movie’s emotional center in favor of innuendo feels wrong.

Still, Small Crimes is a witty thriller with a rock-solid moral core that does not forgive its protagonist simply because he’s the main character. Joe may be eager to leave behind the people in his life to avoid the hassles of emotional attachment, but the joke’s on him. He’ll stick in the audience’s mind whether he likes it or not.

Director: Evan Katz
Writers: Macon Blair, Evan Katz
Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Molly Parker, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Gary Cole
Rating: 3.5/5
Available on Netflix now

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