As Joe Denton, the hapless ex-cop/ex-con protagonist of Small Crimes, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau wears a thick goatee that somehow, all by itself, transforms his look from Lannister nobility into discount Josh Brolin. That’s entirely appropriate for this seedy exercise in corruption and redemption—the sophomore feature from Evan Katz, who was credited as E.L. Katz on his 2014 debut, Cheap Thrills. As the film begins, Joe is being released from prison after a six-year stretch, though the details of his crimes are slow to emerge; conversations with the ironically named Lieutenant Pleasant (Gary Cole) makes it clear that Joe was previously on the force, where both were involved in graft and murder, but the dialogue throughout is naturalistic rather than expository. For a while, all we really know about Joe is that his life is in ruins: His ex-wife has left town with their two young daughters and threatens legal action when he tries to contact them; he’s living with his less than sympathetic parents (Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver); and Lieutenant Pleasant now wants him to kill another bad cop who’s on his deathbed and ready to confess all.
True to its title, Small Crimes works best as a character study of a relapsing loser. Early on, Joe, an alcoholic who achieved sobriety while imprisoned, heads into a bar, orders a shot, and then sits there for a moment staring at both the glass and the current 12-step chip he’s earned. He then downs the shot, which sets the tone for everything that follows. Coster-Waldau, sporting a decent American accent, commits to both the character’s earnest desire to improve and his apparently congenital weakness (the latter supplemented by Forster’s beautifully subtle performance, which culminates in a superb ending). A romance between Joe and Charlotte (Molly Parker), the hospice nurse who’s caring for Joe’s potential murder victim, isn’t quite as effective scene for scene, but does create additional opportunities for Joe to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, yet again. If the film came across as jaded and cynical, it might well be hard to take. Instead, it seems weary and defeated, as if some people are simply born to fail.
Not that Small Crimes is itself an unqualified success. Katz adapted the movie from Dave Zeltserman’s 2008 novel of the same title, collaborating on the screenplay with Macon Blair (the star of Blue Ruin and director of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The book’s narrative seems to be fairly convoluted, and the screen version features several characters who register primarily as plot devices, including a sadistic villain played by Pat Healy (one of the stars of Cheap Thrills) and an eccentric played by Blair himself. Each gets one introductory scene that’s clearly meant to justify their presence later, when the plot demands it; they’re colorful in a superficial way that makes them seem compressed for time. And while the decision not to just vomit up backstory is admirable, Small Crimes, as a film, ultimately errs on the side of being overly vague, perhaps because there simply isn’t any plausible way to get much of the history across via dialogue. (Joe does tell a little of it to Charlotte, as sad pillow talk.) This is an instance where flashbacks might have been useful, even though it’s Joe’s shabby, forlorn present tense that matters.