Evan Katz’s second feature lets Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shine all too briefly.
Writer/director Evan Katz’s debut film Cheap Thrills is a strange, malevolent, masochistic, and wickedly cruel black-humored drama that you couldn’t look away from. Even if the film wasn’t for you, its potency made Katz an unavoidable new voice whose bleak outlook on humankind was more than clear. His sophomore effort, Netflix’s Small Crimes, sees him tie a bit more plot to the tortured skeleton of humanity he enjoys so much. The film is a crooked crime drama with the winding plot of a noir sobered by a stylistic realism.
Vulnerability to unsavory whims and desperation remain at the forefront of the film, which follows ex-cop Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), fresh on parole, as he returns home seeking redemption. Not that he’ll find it in Katz’s film. Like many ex-cons, the outside isn’t what Denton imagined. His dreamed-about real world in all its wood paneling and pastels shines brightly in contrast to the nightmarish dark and heat of its crime-ridden night. The conversations and dialogue have the strained come-and-go of regular folk discussing things they’d rather not, especially from Denton’s parents, played excellently by Jacki Weaver and Robert Forster.
Denton’s an embarrassment to them and worse to his ex-wife and two kids. Things seem bad but the underworld he’s tried to leave can always make things worse by enclosing him once again. This underworld is represented by a motley cast of talent. Macon Blair (a co-writer of the film) is a great mopey sidekick, Gary Cole a delightfully corrupt cop that has Denton by the balls, and Pat Healy a psycho rich kid – all map out a dirty little world with its dirty little people. The only light, ironic for a crime story, is the saintly Molly Parker playing a nurse seduced by Denton. She’s all wide smiles and trusting eyes, her home a soft sweet alternative to the slimy slide of the outside world’s plotting.
This plotting involves Cole’s dirty cop forcing Denton to finish the job he went down for all those years ago, offering Denton both access to his estranged children and the chance to simply stay alive. Win-win. It’s slimy and charming but definitely not funny. Dated only by its ‘80s musical Ford Taurus commercial, Small Crimes exists in a timeless bubble of grimy Americana whose charms and slime all seem to coalesce around one central figure. Katz finds his fascination in the overly-plotted, complicatedly put-upon man, obscured and deferential to his past and problems. An old blood trickle stained on a car window daggers across Denton’s face, a man that can’t escape the violence pointedly foregrounded in his tightest shots.
Small Crimes is almost entirely hinged upon Coster-Waldau’s beaten-dog performance of this down and out sadsack. The seemingly random and brutal protagonist beatings fit perfectly into the martyred noir detective role. He’s a guy more comfortable holding the bars of a fence than embracing the nature behind them. He mumbles and stutters, practicing his lines before conversations, nowhere near as smooth or smart mouthed as one of his ‘40s brethren. What he lacks in sharpness, he makes up for in earnest sleaze – a dedication to the Jimmy Buffett outfits and long-con selfishness that’s kept him on the wrong side of the law. And I do mean to imply that his short-sleeved shirts, dad-goatee, and baggy pants are criminal – they’re intentional to hide Coster-Waldau’s toned body from an audience meant to disrespect his abilities.
Denton takes a turn for the narcissistic and unpitiable that seems to undermine Katz’s suffering fetish, but then, towards the end, a lot of the film’s script seems to undermine its intentions. Over-explanation crops up where none was needed, making plain what was vague and alluring in the beginning, and dialogue that was once pained and realistic becomes on-the-nose accusations about emotional states rather than crimes. “You feel such-and-such way” is a boring way for us to learn or even confirm our beliefs that a character feels any such way.
There’s depravity that Katz wants us to believe lies inside all of us, but he never convincingly sets it up for some of the characters that take these turns. When it bubbles up in the least suspecting characters, it feels like as big a loogie in our face as the spit dripped into Denton’s coffee by a lawman. The turn to ridiculous exploitation, a genre schism that’s incongruity feels like a missed comedic opportunity than a triumphant climax is just the cinematic button on a competent crime story that’s lost its way. It’s too cute and has too many slick, tightly knotted ends for its loose, complex lead.