Small Crimes (2017)
Dir.: Evan Katz
In the last few years, as independent cinema has raised to prominence in the likes of limited release runs, VOD and streaming platforms, there has been a rising trend in American indie revenge cinema. A common narrative of revenge, featuring a morally grey protagonist on a road to redemption through an unnaturally violent mean, has permeated many an indie director’s taste palette. With films like Blue Ruin, Cheap Thrills and I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore, there have been some successful, entertaining ventures into this kind of gleeful pseudo-Tarantino class power fantasy. Evan Katz’s latest directorial effort, Small Crimes, attempts to replicate this success, and for the most part, it contains the ingredients needed to succeed. A compelling, tortured performance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a menacing yet joyfully despicable turn from Gary Cole, and the aforementioned violence that inevitably, obligatorily occurs do provide some measure of comfort food for the moviegoer who enjoys this genre of filmmaking. Unfortunately, there’s not much original narrative material to be had here, and the screenplay feels tired as a result. This is a revenge film whose stakes don’t feel as heightened as a revenge film should, and it’s a shame, because it prevents the film from ever living up to its modest potential.
The film begins with a familiar requiem from Coster-Waldau’s character, as he exits prison on good behavior after a few years’ sentence, determined to reincorporate back into society and show that he has changed from a violent, crooked cop to a damaged yet noble convict. The first thirty minutes focus on throwing the viewer into the narrative with cold feet, and letting Coster-Waldau’s performance clue the viewer into his character’s relationship with his town, his former colleagues, and his family. The film does an admittedly decent job of twisting the relationships between characters in unpredictable fashion, which is something Katz showed that he can do with his previous work. Unfortunately, the film skimps out on providing enough information for Coster-Waldau’s character to provide the viewer with enough sympathy to care about his misfortunes, as well as the misfortunes that befall the supporting cast. Pretty much every character is proven to be a colossal douche, with the only outright goody goody character, Molly Parker’s love interest, functioning simply as a manic pixie dream girl with no real reason to fall for Coster-Waldau in such a short time, with so little narrative subtext. It’s simply impossible to buy the events onscreen. There’s an argument to be made that expecting grounded, naturalistic narrative flow in a violent revenge genre film could be a fool’s errand, but when so many other films have shown that this type of genre film can be executed with much more style and substance, I don’t believe that the failings of Small Crimes’ narrative can be so easily cast aside. With a tonal shift and a twist that makes no sense, and a final act that leaves the viewer apathetic and bored, Small Crimes flounders after the interesting first thirty minutes.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, famous for his role as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, as well as a hitman in the underrated cult Norwegian film Headhunters, has years of experience playing these types of morally ambiguous characters, so his capable acting style provides the most viscous cinematic fruit for the film. The film is also well cast, as Robert Forster, Gary Cole, and Molly Parker all provide gravity to their characters. Despite the lack of consistent character motivations, Robert Forster and Molly Parker serve as conduits to react to Coster-Waldau’s actions, and in because this is the sole purpose of their characters, they perform admirably. Gary Cole presents a different kind of performance, and one I think this film benefits more from: that of the sarcastic, douchey frenemy. His performance certainly brings a fair amount of dark humor to contrast the protagonist’s dark, cold solemnity. I found Gary Cole’s character to be the most likable in the film despite his douchebaggery, simply because his performance and dialogue actually showed personality. Far too often in this film does the personality of the characters remain buried beneath gung-ho violence or mean-spirited, uncreative dialogue, whereas Cole owns every scene he is in. Simply put, the film has some interesting performances, but most of the characters fall flat due to the lackluster script. Actors can only take a mediocre script so far.
The technical merits of this film feel generic, which is yet another shame. The film’s score is barebones, as to be expected of this genre, but its absence and minimalism often feels forced. Directors such as Jeremy Saulnier know when to provide bass-heavy ambience or light musical tones to accentuate mood, whereas Katz’s direction here never seems to know when to provide this kind of emotional impact. The cinematography is shot with a seemingly apathetic eye, and though there are a few shots that seem like they are leading towards more ambitious cinematic angles, the camerawork never feels more than serviceable. As a result, the film feels more like an imitation of the kinds of indie revenge dramas than its own valid entry, which is strange considering Evan Katz is the same director of Cheap Thrills, a far more successfully written and executed film than this one. The physical aspects of the filmmaking disappoint almost as much as the script, though the filmmaking never dives down into sickening sloppiness.
Small Crimes does not necessarily make a mistake following a formula that has been explored incredibly often; rather, it makes its mistakes in its execution and its lack of narrative substance. Its lack of care for its characters and its refusal to provide depth to their motivations beyond the protagonist’s redemption arc make the film feel uninspired and insincere. Accomplished actors are wasted on a screenplay that never quite provides enough character-building to impact the viewer, and the cinematography and score never provide any extra cinematic substance sonically or visually to enhance the events that unfold. The film is just a generic, inconsequential bore, with the theme of redemption mishandled and mangled, and the violence never shot well enough to provide any kind of thrilling escapist pleasure. The film is not a colossal failure, as it has some redeeming qualities, but when there have been so many films of this ilk release recently that have been executed far better, it’s hard to recommend this one, especially considering that it’s streaming on Netflix, a platform with far better films to offer inside and outside of this genre. It’s a small crime that this film isn’t much better.