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D: Evan Katz / 95m

Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Macon Blair, Pat Healy, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence

At one point in Evan Katz’s Small Crimes, the lead character, ex-cop and recent ex-con Joe Denton (Coster-Waldau) sets out to blackmail the local DA (Kinney) by setting him up with an obliging stripper in a motel room. With a camera in place to record the “tryst”, Joe settles back in an adjacent room and waits for the DA, Phil Coakley, to turn up. Coakley duly arrives but just as it looks as if Joe’s plan is going to work, along comes the stripper’s boyfriend – and with a gun. The boyfriend bursts in, Joe hears shots fired, and then looks out the window to see Coakley emerge unscathed with a gun in his hand. Rushing to the room, he finds the stripper and her boyfriend are both dead and the camera is gone. It’s not the first of Joe’s plans to go wrong since he got out of jail (nor will it be the last), but as the movie continues, and there’s no immediate follow up with either Coakley or Joe, it leaves the viewer wondering: where does all that fit in?

This happens several times during the course of the movie, and though it’s all part of Katz’ and co-screenwriter (and supporting actor) Macon Blair’s screenplay, such a non-linear approach – while it can be applauded as a way of making the movie more distinctive than some of its many cinematic cousins – doesn’t help the viewer to become more involved in the plot and with the various characters that pop up here and there, do their thing, and then disappear again. Only Joe is consistent in his appearance and involvement, and while the viewer can be thankful for this, Joe himself is less of a protagonist and more of a violence-attracting bystander. On his very first night of freedom after spending six years in jail for an extremely vicious assault on the same DA he later tries to blackmail, Joe graciously offers a young woman (Sandiford) a ride home from a bar. But it’s a honey trap, one that Joe fights his way out of, only to learn that the young woman is Coakley’s daughter.

Coincidence or set up? A set up is the likely answer, but the script fumbles this, as it does quite a lot else that could be explained by the odd line of exposition, but Katz and Blair aren’t interested in keeping things simple. Instead their brief seems to be the murkier the better. Motivations are kept frustratingly vague, and even when some decisions or events have to be explained, they’re done in such a way that often it makes it even more difficult to understand why something is happening, and where it fits in. Sometimes a scene will play out, and though it may feel important in the grand scheme of things, that scene will find itself isolated from the rest of the script until such time as Katz and Blair decide they can return to it. And sometimes, they never do. What this all means is that Small Crimes often feels arch and tiresome, as if it can’t make up its mind just what sort of tone it should be adopting, and is trundling along in the hope that inspiration will strike and help it on its way.

The movie has been adapted from the novel by Dave Zeltserman, and while it may seem to have all the requirements for a modern day noir – Joe just wants to go straight for the sake of his kids, who he’s not allowed to see – there’s no femme fatale, there’s no devious figure in the background pulling all the strings, and the only mystery involves a death that occurred before Joe went to jail and which he may be responsible for. The machinations that are set up once Joe is out of jail don’t always make sense, and though all the main characters are surprisingly well drawn (even Molly Parker’s superfluous cat lady-cum-love interest), they’re all in service to a narrative that only occasionally flexes its muscles, and which does so only when there’s violence involved. Otherwise, personal animosities are the order of the day, Joe’s efforts to extricate himself backfire then succeed out of nowhere once too often, and the material tries too hard to be ironic when it just needs to be sincere.

There’s humour then, but not so much that it makes watching the movie a more enjoyable experience. It’s often at a cost to the credibility of Joe himself and Coster-Waldau’s performance, which is through necessity, a more passive role than might be expected. Joe makes a lot of noise when he needs to, but that’s all it is: a lot of noise. He’s also surprisingly naïve in his thinking, believing that he can get himself out of the fix he’s in without there being any bloodshed. There’s noise too from Joe’s mother, Irma (Weaver), who seems there only to shout at him in a disapproving, angry manner. Later, she suffers an injury that could have been avoided, but the irony is in the detail of what happens. Alongside her is Joe’s father, Joe Sr (Forster), her antithesis, a man who is calm and confident and coordinated, and apparently unflustered by anything anyone says. Each gives a better performance than might be expected, and though Coster-Waldau is as charming as ever, there are times when he tries too hard, and the result is some obvious mugging.

The movie at least tries to be interesting, but its tired old scenario isn’t gripping enough for it to make a consistent impact, and some viewers may well be asking themselves why, with admittedly a lot going on, that there’s a distance between the material and the viewer. The simple answer is that what’s happening on screen isn’t anything so convincing or compelling that the viewer is ever likely to maintain continued interest throughout, or care about the characters and what happens to them. And even when the movie pulls a surprise out of its hat at the end, what should be a highly effective, and emotional moment, is undermined by there having been so little previously that would warrant that kind of reaction when it’s needed. Things are further hindered by Katz’s low-key directing style and the bland visual palette used to make the characters seem more interesting than they are. When murder and mayhem in a small town are this unaffecting, then it’s time to look elsewhere for your villainy and deceit.

Rating: 5/10 – patchy and rarely absorbing, Small Crimes unfolds patiently but with few moments where the pace quickens enough for the movie to become entirely interesting; the performances help, but the main storyline lacks cohesion and there’s a distinct sense that the material is laboured, something that it never finds a way to overcome.