Familiar Territory Makes a Sophomore Slump Out of Katz’s ‘Small Crimes’

Originally published on August 2nd, 2017.

Sometimes when you’ve been watching a television series for long enough, and that show is the only text you’ve seen a particular actor or group of actors do, it can be difficult trying to imagine them as someone else even in spite the rest of their catalogue backing up their credentials. To many people, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau may just be Game of Thrones’s Ser Jaime Lannister, but even before then he had small parts in Black Hawk Down, Wimbledon and Kingdom of Heaven, and since has had major roles in Mama, Oblivion and Gods of Egypt (yikes).

His most recent film project, E.L. Katz’s Small Crimes adaptation, sees him in the lead role, something that hasn’t happened to him all too often outside of his native Denmark. In this black comedy, he plays Joe Denton, an ex-cop released from a six-year prison sentence after the attempted murder of a district attorney, and though he tries to steer clear of trouble and make amends for his wrongs, his past continues to bite until he falls into the same misdeeds that had him sent away.

Such material feels like familiar territory Katz and co-writer Macon Blair, whose respective past projects Cheap Thrills and Blue Ruin have also depicted down-on-their-luck protagonists looking for a new start through an easy way out and examined the lack of redemption in violence, though to different effects. But, while Cheap Thrills’s Craig and Blue Ruin’s Dwight might be considered unlucky victims of circumstance, Joe is refreshingly different from either in his complete lack of innocence and habitually duplicitous persona. In fact, it doesn’t happen very often in the film when we see or hear Joe do or say anything that could be perceived as genuine.

Perhaps that’s partially why, personally, I had a hard time buying into Coster-Waldau’s characterization of the role. Admittedly, the only thing I’ve seen him in outside his notorious King Slayer was Danish thriller Headhunters, playing the antagonist Clas Greve, so it’s hard to think of him outside of his Game of Thrones notoriety. This certainly isn’t meant to criticize his performance as a whole, as he capably exhibits the lead’s tortured inner duality in a way that doesn’t ask for pity, but nonetheless receives it. When most of his spoken presence until moments before the final act, however, is him being noticeably deceitful and disingenuous, it’s hard to feel engaged with him as a lead protagonist, and thereby difficult to separate the actor from previous works that ought to have no bearing on final judgments.

The film itself bears numerous resemblances to Katz and Blair’s other projects, but feels much closer to Blue Ruin in its slow-burn narrative progression building up to a more lively, violent final act. It’s properly cynical and similarly nihilistic to the classic crime dramas inspiring it, but the darkened humor meant to balance with its noir-ish attitudes doesn’t always translate as well as Katz or Blair might hope. However, the film’s interesting stylistic choices sometimes make up for such shortcomings, with its variety of green hues communicating most of the characters’ moral decay and giving its unpurifying violence an extra layer of ugliness to back up the script’s tone.

Ultimately, the plot doesn’t resolve itself very neatly, but maybe that was the point. Perhaps like its lead protagonist, it purposefully isn’t allowed a clean resolution because that would lead to satisfying redemption, and to truly achieve that doesn’t mean to sink oneself to the previous depths that should have been left behind. Not to mention, it would have been unbecoming of the material’s pessimism. It’s too bad the attempt at such a vision, assuming this is the case, is a little too ‘been there, done that’ to distinguish itself.

Small Crimes is a noble attempt by both Katz and Blair for a relatively fresh look at familiar narrative stomping grounds and should hardly be considered a blemish for either, but unfortunately, it’s more than a few steps off from either’s strongest works. While we wait for Katz’s next project, Blair has been making himself busy with hotly anticipated appearances in Logan Lucky, The Florida Project and next year’s Hold the Dark, so for him this must be an exciting time in his career.

Oh, and I guess the seventh season of Game of Thrones got underway a few weekends ago, so you can continue to get your Jaime Lannister fill while it lasts.

3/5

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