Director E.L. Katz made a strong debut in 2014 with his satisfyingly sickening and slick black comedy, “Cheap Thrills.” For his follow-up, he teamed with “Blue Ruin” star Macon Blair to pen a blood-drenched tale of second chances called “Small Crimes.” Once more, the fearsome filmmaker offers a mean little movie that follows a seemingly ordinary everyman down a road of greed and self-destruction. But drained of humor — dark or otherwise — this crime thriller becomes one note, and that note is bleak.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones“) stars as Joe Denton, an inmate who’s earned his six-year chip for sobriety right before being released from prison. Wearing a scruffy goatee that makes him look less like Lannister royalty and more like the dirt-bag you’d cross the street to avoid, Coster-Waldau brandishes an American accent that sounds eerily like a Bryan Cranston impersonation as he trudges through Joe’s half-hearted attempt to get his kids back. Considering his parental aspirations and his hard-fought sobriety, audience empathy should be with this redemption-seeking protagonist from the start. But there’s something in the atmosphere that suggests Joe’s not a man to be trusted, much less rooted for.
What got him in prison? Why has his wife cut him out of their daughters’ lives with court orders and hushed threats? Why do even his parents regard him with disdain and fear? The truth of Joe is revealed as flakes of his calm façade chip away, often splashed with blood. He was once a respected cop and a family man. But addiction to drugs, booze, gambling, and the power offered by a local kingpin drew Joe to a catastrophic string of choices. More than anything, he wants to be done with the past — as he plainly declares to one of his victim’s whose flesh is still streaked with thick ropey scars — but the past is not done with Joe.
“Small Crimes” aims for a slow burn style meant to lure audiences in with Joe’s eerie calm that evaporates into wrath and rage at a moment’s notice. But the thrills never come — cheap or otherwise — as Coster-Waldau lumbers from one set piece and sneering confrontation to another. Even though the plot loops in police corruption, murder, revenge, and blackmail, it’s pace never manages more than a sleepwalk shamble. That is until the story trips hard into an abrupt climax sprayed with bullets and stacked with corpses.
To Katz’s credit, there are some intriguing performances in this crime thriller. Daniela Sandiford is a standout as a wounded young woman fueled by vengeance. Gary Cole is deliciously evil as a duplicitous cop who openly values his fancy outdoor grill over the lives of his co-workers. Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver bring an authentic anguish as Joe’s heartbroken parents. Cast as the vicious son of a fading gangster, Pat Healy gets to play against type in a small part he makes wickedly entertaining with a sharp-toothed smile and unmatched menace. Blair pops by to give doe-eyes and wallow in a bit of grief, and Molly Parker appears briefly to be squandered in an underwritten girlfriend role. (That Joe falls for a nurse dedicated to “fixing” the broken feels so on the nose it’s wince-inducing.) But, when it comes to Coster-Waldau, there’s something missing in his portrayal that keeps us at a distance, unable to connect, empathize, or care.
With a grim crime narrative that loops around its small town setting, knitting more and more innocent bystanders into its gruesome tapestry, “Small Crimes” feels a bit like “No Country For Old Men,” but minus its crucial pathos. For all its senseless violence and bitter recriminations, the characters and their trauma left me numb. Perhaps because Coster-Waldau doesn’t possess the star power or innate charisma of Tommy Lee Jones or even Josh Brolin, and so fails to ground the stakes of the story. Perhaps the script could have used a few more passes to pull its characters from curious to compelling. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. But as “Small Crimes” itself declares, there is no greater tragedy than a second chance squandered. [C-]