Movie Review : Small Crimes (2017)
* minor spoilers *
Television be damned, movie adaptations are still the yardstick of artistic success in 2017. Whether you wrote a novel or simply lead an interesting life, if it's been turned into a movie your legacy is made. People will remember your name and buy whatever you're selling afterwards. Any passionate reader will tell you, though: the most compelling material out there rarely gets adapted. Why? Aesthetics and marketability have little in common. That means studio executives like to bank on what people already know in order to turn profit: a famous director, an established franchise or disturbingly familiar narrative. Ethically ambiguous and complex novels like Dave Zeltserman's Small Crimes sure don't make the cut often, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a part of Netflix's 2017 original content push. Uncompromising authors like Zeltserman are not everybody's cup of tea.
Independent cinema superstars Evan Katz and Macon Blair took a bet on risky material and I'm glad to say Small Crimes passes with flying colors. It's very much an acquired taste, but it is really good at what it does. Let's get into it.
Small Crimes is the story of Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a disgraced cop fresh off six years in the slammer for attempted murder on a colleague of his (Michael Kinney). Determined to start over and live peacefully for the remainder of his life, he is dragged back into the fold by his ex-Lieutenant (Gary Cole) who needs him to eliminate their old employer Manny Vassey (Shawn Lawrence), an local mobster looking for redemption on his death bed and looking to confess to the same policeman Denton disfigured six years before. This is a time-sensitive situation and Denton doesn't have a lot of leverage. He needs to either deal with this or drop from the face of the Earth because if Manny talks he's either going to be brutally murdered or be sentenced to death. Or both. If Manny doesn't protect him anymore it'll be open season on ol' Joe Denton.
Viewers familiar with the aesthetic of Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair movies such as Blue Ruin, Green Room and I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore will find similarities in Small Crimes. It's a low profile, character-driven drama with an inherent sense of style, which may or may not be my favorite thing in the world. What gives it an identity of its own next to all these other successful independent movies is that fact that it's a film without a hero. Joe Denton isn't even an antihero. His primary motivation is survival and it means endangering whoever he needs to endanger if it means not pushing up daisies for twenty-four more hours and it's great, because Denton is portrayed as alone and desperate like a wounded animal. The bleak, almost Shakespearean hopelessness of Small Crimes' narrative put against the normalcy of the small town America backdrop filled with bungalows, deserted baseball fields and neighborhood bars is what gives the movie such a strong identity *.
I know what you're thinking. What is the point of watching a movie where there isn't anybody to root for. Well, it's not that simple. Small Crimes introduces Joe Denton as a tough, street smart guy who's not given any chance to redeem himself before you can even realize he doesn't really want to. There is this great scene in the beginning where the daughter of Michael Kinney's character attempts to legitimately entrap him and send him back to jail, which he brilliantly fight his way out of. The scene is brilliantly filmed through a dirty pickup window too, which heightens the tension because it takes time to figure out Joe isn't getting beat up. That's another thing I really liked about Small Crimes. Joe Denton fosters a similar relationship to support characters than he does with the audience. He just keeps disappointing everybody. It's a slippery slope for a narrative, but Small Crimes ends up with such a bang and with an actual heroic act (not performed by Denton), which makes it worth your while.
Not everyone is going to like Small Crimes. Some people are going to fucking hate it and it's not because it's poorly shot or delivered. They're going to hate it because it forces them to answer the question: can you take ethical decisions when your survival is at stake? And most people won't like the answer they come up with. I liked Small Crimes for exactly this reason. It sets up a classic antihero narrative only to violently subvert it and brilliantly turn it into something greater (which I won't spoil, but it involved the aforementioned heroic act). Small Crimes is lean, understated and ethically challenging. It had everything to please me, but it may be a more challenging viewing to some of you. It's worth giving it a shot, though. It's bound to prompt some violent arguments in every household.
* I'm aware this depiction sounds suspiciously Lehanesque, but the difference between the two backdrops is that Zeltserman, Katz and Blair are not ferociously in love with it.