Directed by E.L. Katz
Small Crimes holds its characters accountable in a way many similar crime films don’t, except for in a Coen Brothers film. The question raised at some point is whether crime pays, and by the end it obviously doesn’t.
Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is pretty great as a narcissistic, newly released from prison former cop. The very first shot of the film starts extremely close to Joe, his hair hanging low over his face, enough to tell you that this man is a tortured soul, except we learn that he’s not. Small Crimes is centered around this anti-hero, but like most anti-hero stories, it gives you just enough reasons to root for him. As the story goes on, however, we’re told that he is impossible to root for, and all these problems are of his own making.
When Joe’s father (Robert Forster) sits him down and tells him he’s a narcissist, and he’s never known how to deal with Joe, it’s a disruption to the film (in a good way) and a sort of meta commentary on other movies like this one. Every anti-hero I can think of is a narcissist, but we don’t always think of them that way, often simply because they’re attractive.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a similarly attractive movie star (or tv star), and director E.L. Katz capitalizes on this image. The most important thing about Joe is that he’s played by the guy who plays Jaime Lannister. Everything else flows outward from this defining characteristic.
Because we have some empathy for Joe (due to the casting and various unfair beatdowns he receives), we root for him. The real reason for Joe’s imprisonment is doled out slowly so that we have time to care about him before we realize how heinous his crimes are. And Small Crimes is great in its depiction of sudden violence and its consequences. This movie has so much gore in it (for anything that’s not a horror movie), but it never feels too saturated in violence.
The violence in this film is genuinely shocking and hard to stomach. The first example of this is when we meet Phil Coakley (Michael Kinney) a DA whom Joe sliced up with a knife, landing him in prison. It’s the first time in the story we’re forced to really see what Joe has done, and rooting for him becomes just a little harder.
To make sure we do root for him, however, we have a guy abuse Joe and then demand that he kill a guy named Manny. This character, played by Gary Cole, comes off as so sinister, that Joe’s crimes seem as though they must surely pail in comparison to this man’s. Manny, it turns out, is a dying crime boss who has had a come to Jesus moment and wants to confess his crimes (which would implicate Joe and Gary Cole’s character) before his death.
Joe, it turns out, must either kill Manny or kill Phil, though he’d prefer not to kill the man he’s already maimed. It seems Joe might have some sympathy for Phil, but it might also be that he thinks killing Phil would be harder to get away with.
After learning that Manny will be harder to get to than he thought, Joe turns to his nurse, Charlotte (Molly Parker), through whom he thinks he can kill Manny. Joe either falls in love with her or is simply playing her to facilitate the murder (I vote the latter), and in the end she kills the old man for him.
There are so many bad decisions made by so many different characters, that it’s not surprising when everything goes to shit in the third act. Just about everyone dies or digs their own grave. A lot of this destruction is caused by another man I haven’t even brought up yet. This is Scotty (Macon Blair), a soldier whose dead brother, Billy, was a great friend of Joe’s. Billy died under mysterious circumstances, and it becomes increasingly obvious (and ultimately true) that Joe killed him.
Scotty enacts revenge on not only Joe, but also Junior (Manny’s son), who ordered the hit on his brother.
After the dust has settled, we’re left with Joe and his father, alone. Joe’s mother gets caught up in the violence and clings to life while Charlotte herself appears to have been murdered as well. When Joe declares that he will go see his children (whom he is not allowed to see), his father tells him that destruction follows him wherever he goes, so seeing his kids is probably a poor idea. Joe calls his father’s bluff, telling him to “stop me” and his father stabs him in the gut. The end.
So yeah, no one gets away with anything, and the film tells us that all these characters are kind of stupid and got themselves into this mess. At the beginning of the film, Joe is released after only six years, and when we learn of his crime, it’s a surprise he didn’t get a longer sentence. Gary Cole’s character, though, reminds him how he made his sentence lighter, and that’s the first example of the benefit of Joe’s crime connection. Then his friend gives him a lot of money and orders Manny’s execution, and we see the benefit to this criminal lifestyle.
Of course, those are the only benefits, and there is a limit to both. Joe never does anything with the money, and he was probably better off in prison anyway than he is out here.
Each character, except for maybe Gary Cole’s, gets his comeuppance, and after watching this film, the anti-hero story starts to feel a little played out, but I didn’t know it until I saw Small Crimes.