A pulpy slice of pie from deep in the heart of American nowhere, Evan Katz’s “Small Crimes” is far too convoluted for such an admittedly modest thriller, but the film ties together in such a perfect bow that it’s tempting to forgive all of the knots it took to get there.
At heart, this is a simple story of second chances. Crooked cop Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, striking the perfect balance between the disgraced prince he plays on “Game of Thrones” and Sawyer from “Lost”) has finally been granted parole after spending a few years in the pen for the attempted murder of a District Attorney, and he’s ready to turn his life around. Kind of. Maybe.
Joe is a raggedy shit-kicker, like a junkie who needs to shoot himself in the foot every few hours — you know the type. He spends the film’s opening shot speaking to a man of the cloth and confessing all manner of sins (“I made terrible choices, I drove my family away, I hurt people…”), but it’s all a two-bit act, and the scene ends with a note of the withering gallows humor that screenwriter Macon Blair (“I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”) is so good at sprinkling atop the cold-blooded crime stories that have always been his bread and butter.
The film may be based on David Zeltserman’s 2008 novel of the same name, but it feels like it married into the same family of cinematic blood feuds that Blair and Jeremy Saulnier hatched with “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room.”
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Indeed, Joe is hardly out of the joint a few hours before he finds himself back in hot water. After a brief visit to his aging parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert Forster), who confess that they haven’t been in touch with Joe’s ex-wife or their two daughters, our hangdog hero makes a beeline for the dingiest watering hole in his depressed home town and promptly uses his sobriety chip as a coaster for his first drink. The next thing he knows, Joe is being attacked by men with ninja weapons — one of several vicious reminders that the indigenous population still holds a grudge — and leveraged back into the same life he wanted to leave behind. His enemies remember him well, and his former accomplices remember him even better. Chief among them is the homicidal Lieutenant Pleasant (Gary Cole, relishing the chance to play a total monster), who tries to blackmail Joe into killing a dying mob boss before he rats on all of the dirtiest members of the force.
Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that, “Small Crimes” quickly entangling itself in lots of needless local mythology and an increasingly effective romantic subplot between Joe and the mafioso’s nurse (Molly Parker). For a film that often feels like the pilot for a noir-tinged new AMC show, Katz and co. pack in enough plot to sustain an entire season. Blair, whose presence typically indicates a more ruthlessly streamlined affair, even finds a role for himself as the village idiot who’s stockpiled enough firearms to start a revolution — like almost everything else here, the character adds little to the movie before paying off in a big way at the end.
And it can’t be overstated that, as much of a chore as it can be to sift through at times, there’s a well-conceived method to all of this densely packed madness. The rare film that is more about the destination than the journey, “Small Crimes” compensates for much of its narrative inertia by holding fast to the courage of its convictions — after two acts of watching Joe dig a deeper and deeper hole for himself, the final 15 minutes allow the poor bastard to hit bottom, at which point his odyssey pivots from a stale portrait of redemption to an invigoratingly satisfying portrait of personal responsibility.
Katz, whose only previous feature was 2013’s similarly violent “Cheap Thrills,” may never possess the immaculate sense of craft that Jeremy Saulnier brings to his work, but this film’s most pivotal scenes are all staged with a fine eye for visual drama, and the relative looseness of his approach works to the advantage of such a shaggy story. The precision of its climactic moments is all the more satisfying because of all the loose change that it cashes in. And through it all, Joe remains a refreshingly tough nut to crack — not only is it hard to tell if he’s changed, but it’s hard to know what change might even look like. Small crimes, it turns out, have big consequences, and redemption isn’t always as easy as it looks in the movies.