Small Crimes  is the second feature-length film from Director Evan Katz (also known as E.L. Katz. Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of Game of Thrones fame, as a convicted cop being released from prison after an attempted murder charge, the film shows the struggles a criminal has when trying to reintegrate into society. What worsens the case of Coster-Waldau’s character Joe Denton, however, is how high-profile his case was, considering he was convicted of violently slashing new district attorney Phil Coakley (Michael Kinney). Now, upon being released, he must navigate the streets he once oversaw as a cop, but without any of the respect and all of the same criminal opportunities. Dragged back down into the gutter by his same criminal connections, things worsen for Joe when a separate crime he committed threatens to come into the light with Coakley determined to see Joe get the death penalty, no matter the evidence.
Great acting. Appearing in Game of Thrones since 2011, Coster-Waldau has really struggled to find good roles. Most recently, aside from Small Crimes, he wound up in one of the 2016’s worst films, Gods of Egypt. One of his few starring roles since gaining popularity, that role hardly showcased his talent as an actor. Small Crimes, fortunately, does give him the room to really explore the broken nature of his character and, how no matter how hard he tries, he is doomed to be a criminal. Coster-Waldau captures the rage, frustration, and self-hatred, aspects of the character quite nicely and paints a realistic portrayal of a man trying to fix his life, but completely unable to do so due to his ties to the crime underworld. As his father, Robert Forster is also terrific as the doting father who, compared to his mother (portrayed by Jacki Weaver), is far more nurturing. Forster’s role as Joe’s father is far more sympathetic as he tries to understand and cater to his broken son. However, the man who keeps pulling Joe into the gutter is Lieutenant Dan Pleasant (Gary Cole). Excellently portrayed by the always oddly nonchalant Cole who casually threatens Joe and his family without thinking about it twice. A ruthless figure capable of anything, Cole plays both the casual nature of his threats and his intimidating presence equally well and really gives a great face to the criminal world in the film.
Stylish color palette. As with many recent indie crime thrillers this decade, Small Crimes has a very distinctive color palette, much to its betterment. With a blend of grays and greens adorning the screen, Small Crimes’ cold color palette makes its introduction of red via headlights or blood all the more jarring. Not only are the colors stylish and quite nice to look at, but it creates a nice juxtaposition to the brutal violence set to unfold in the film by the time it is over. Digitally-shot to its very core, the colors and cinematography of Small Crimes soak in the style of the medium in a similar fashion to something like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which makes sense considering the fact that Macon Blair both acts in the film and co-wrote it with Katz. The highlight of this style comes quite early in the film when Joe gives a girl a ride home in his car. Driving over a hill, we first see his headlights hitting off of the trees, which were previously enveloped entirely in darkness. Illuminating into a red sea of color amidst the dark of the night, the blueish tinted headlights then proceed over the hill, glistening beautifully off of the road. While nothing else quite reaches that shot’s beauty, the rest of the film’s reliance upon this style is certainly its strongest element
Mishmash of great scenes and filler. Small Crimes is one of those films that really hints at its potential greatness in some sequences that really stand out above the rest. Yet, those scenes are always countered by an equally outrageous sequence that really squanders the efforts of those scenes, which will be delved into more shortly. However, for now, those great scenes do deserve credit for their power and strength. One such example comes at a motel where Joe is setting a man up with a prostitute in order to frame him. Explosive, shocking, and defying expectations of how the scene will play out - even later on when all the events of the night are fully explained - Small Crimes leaps thrillingly out of being an odd blend of black comedy and crime drama. It has the same shocking punch that has been championed by co-writer Macon Blair’s frequent collaborator, Jeremy Saulnier. In the aforementioned Green Room and in Blue Ruin as well, the films are marked by slowly developing everything before jumping straight into the deep end with brilliant thrills. Small Crimes is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, with that scene at the motel standing as a testament to this. Additionally, the ending is one of those rarely satisfying endings where the film ends shockingly, but appropriately. It is also quite tragic to watch but really works.
Over-indulgence in graphic violence and unfinished plot threads. Yet, where that aforementioned filler comes in is through the film’s over-indulgence in violence, another trait of Blair’s. In his film I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, the film quickly devolves into being nothing but a bloodbath. From a shootout in an open field to various characters being shot or attacked in violent fashions, Small Crimes’ reliance upon brutal violence is not really the issue, so to speak. Rather, it is quite indulgent. It is never really needed. The scenes, some intended to be comedic, just never really work. Even when they do work, such as in the aforementioned motel scene, it is never really justified how graphic it becomes. Yes, somebody gets shot, but does everything need to be hanging out as it is depicted? The film never really seems to justify this indulgence in shocking violence, opting to show brutal carnage just because it can. The film devolving into violence really goes hand-in-hand with how plot threads seem to go away into thin air. Joe not being able to have his kids is brought up occasionally, but only when convenient. His relationship with Charlotte Boyd (Molly Parker) similarly comes and goes, but not before getting the nurturing Charlotte to act well out of her realm of normal behavior while with Joe. When plot threads are tied up, it is done in throwaway lines or overly convenient manners where things just seem to slide into place for Joe and his associates. In other words, the film lacks payoff, constantly introducing new wrinkles that either get cast aside in favor of bloody entertainment or just rectified without fanfare.
Solid character study, but riddled with cliches. One of the more unfortunate elements of Small Crimes is its reliance upon cliches. Undermining its compelling character study by shoehorning in cliches throughout the film, Small Crimes - bar a few individual moments - plays out exactly how one would expect a film of this ilk to play out. Telling the story of a man trying to go straight after being in jail, the man quickly learns he can never get out and must become his old self again. This obviously causes friction in his life while he meets a non-descript girl and begins dating her. The two really hit it off and he wants to change, but he needs to do one more job for the men he is indebted to, as they have dirt on him and know what to entice him with to keep him focused. All the while, the film constantly builds to reveal a few things. One, convicts may want to change, but the system around them will never let them change. Two, convicts in this scenario ruin the lives of everybody they encounter without exception. Aside from a few diversions and individual moments, such as the final act, that sprinkle in originality, Small Crimes is a rather formulaic and cliched tale of a man trying to find redemption in a world that is entirely out of second chances.
Lacking in comedy for a black comedy. While the film most often follows the lines of a drama, it is also quite clearly trying to be a dark comedy as well. In this endeavor, Small Crimes is a thorough failure with few, if any, moments eliciting a smirk from laughter. Scenes of townsfolk spitting on Joe’s food really fall flat, in spite of their tongue-in-cheek nature. A scene where Lieutenant Pleasant talks wistfully about a high school boy feeling up his girlfriend in a car in the parking lot is pretty funny, but hardly dark comedy. Instead, the film relies upon that aforementioned shocking violence and how over-the-top it all is to find its comedy and it never quite clicks. The scene of the shootout is one such moment and, as previously stated, it does not really work. It just plays out awkwardly and goes on for far too long, while being quite absurd instead of funny. While its dramatic elements can often work, its comedy is largely a major misfire.