Small Crimes is a small movie about small people. Not physically small, obviously. But every character in this movie, which was directed by Evan Katz, who co-wrote the screenplay with Blue Ruin’s Macon Blair, feels shrunken. Their outlooks, their ambitions, their stories. All narrow. All petty. The crimes they commit, ironically enough, are the biggest things about them.
Small Crimes is available exclusively on Netflix, and you can imagine why. This is a relentlessly bleak and unenjoyable experience that could never find a home on a major network, or see a wide (even limited) theatrical release. Uh huh. It’s too grim to function as pure entertainment, too apathetic for an emotional drama. It’s just unpleasant. And unless you’re in the market for a thoroughly depressing experience, I can’t imagine you’ll care for Small Crimes all that much.
Still, that isn’t to say that it’s bad, per se. The moodiness is most of the point, and while the story lacks an emotional anchor or an intellectual contour, it occasionally veers off in surprising directions, and it’s buoyed by a handful of strong performances. Our main character is Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a disgraced former cop who returns home after six years in prison and moves back in with his parents (Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver). He’s in recovery, and flaunts his sobriety coin like it’s a Purple Heart. Forster and Weaver lend Small Crimes a palpable sense of despair, and it’s oddly compelling. They’re unmoved at Joe not having had a drink in jail, unimpressed by him finally not doing something that he shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. You’re right there with them. There’s a better movie somewhere within this one, and it could probably star those two, as a long-suffering couple who want the best for their son despite his magnetic attachment to trouble.
That’s another thing about Joe: Trouble follows him everywhere. It takes all kinds of forms. Early in the movie it’s in the shape of a bottle; he can’t find solutions to his problems at the bottom, but he keeps looking anyway. Then it’s a line of coke. Then it’s a late-night ambush, the blaring headlights of a pick-up truck, a woman who comes on to him a little too strong, a lamplit fistfight we see through a rain-splattered window. Then it’s Gary Cole as a police lieutenant, offering him a deal. Kill someone, he says, and he’ll get a revised custody agreement for his two daughters, who he’s currently unable to see. He calls it a carrot. The stick is Junior (Pat Healy), the flagrantly unhinged son of the local crime boss that Joe used to work for.
There’s little exposition in Small Crimes, which is refreshing. It references names and events and expects the audience to connect the dots, which is easy enough given that most of the people involved have an on-screen face, and the story is so contained. Besides, the genre elements are so noticeable that you never forget the kind of film you’re watching. Here are the dark, small-town country roads. There is the lingering sense of menace, looming out of every shallow and delusional decision Joe makes. There’s talk of redemption, of second chances, of forgiveness. The atmosphere is grubby, and reeks of corruption. Everyone is beyond repair. It’s not hard to keep all the names straight, to figure out who did what to whom, but it is hard to care.
All the ways in which Small Crimes does work are built on solid acting. Coster-Waldau is fine as the lead (he plays narcissists very well), but his character is so relentlessly self-destructive, so half-hearted in his attempts to rebuild his life, that he’s the least interesting and most frustrating to follow around. Cole’s crooked charisma is addictive, though, and Healy injects some real psychosis into the movie’s bloodstream. There’s a part for Molly Parker as a private nurse who does a good job of hinting at a previous life, and you suspect it was probably more interesting than the one she’s currently living. Most of the supporting characters feel that way.
Small Crimes likes to consider itself a dark comedy, but if the laughs are there, I certainly didn’t find them. It’s adapted from a novel I haven’t read by Dave Zeltserman, but what shows through on screen is a murky crime drama about pathetically petty people. There might be some value in that, depending on what you’re into, but I can’t say it worked all that much for me.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.