Saturday, April 29, 2017

On Netflix: SMALL CRIMES (2017)

(UK/France/US - 2017)

Directed by Evan Katz. Written by Evan Katz and Macon Blair. Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Robert Forster, Jacki Weaver, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Macon Blair, Pat Healy, Michael Kinney, Daniela Sandiford, Shawn Lawrence, Larry Fessenden, Tara Yelland. (Unrated, 95 mins)

Based on a 2008 novel by Dave Zeltserman, the Netflix Original film SMALL CRIMES belongs to that ever-growing post-BLUE RUIN subgenre where names like Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair keep turning up (you could also lump BAD TURN WORSE in there, even though it was made by others). Saulnier (GREEN ROOM) isn't involved in SMALL CRIMES, but Blair is, as a co-writer and co-star, just a couple of months after his excellent I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE also bowed as a Netflix Original. Shot in Quebec but set in small-town America, SMALL CRIMES recalls BLUE RUIN more than the visceral horrors of GREEN ROOM or the Coen Bros. aura of the misanthropic I DON'T FEEL AT HOME,. It's more of a character study centered on Joe Denton (GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a disgraced ex-cop who can't stay out of trouble. Dubbed the "Slash Cop" by the local press after a knife attack that left current District Attorney Phil Coakley (Michael Kinney) with significant scarring, Joe has just been paroled after six years in prison, during which time his wife took their two daughters, changed their last names, moved far away, and got a restraining order against her ex-husband. Once he's out, everyone seems to be lining up for revenge, from Coakley's seductive daughter (Daniela Sandiford) to his former partner Lt. Dan Pleasant (Gary Cole), who reminds him that they have some unfinished business. On the take before he was sent to jail, Joe had a side job with Pleasant on the payroll of mob boss Manny Vassey (Shawn Lawrence). Manny is on his deathbed in the last stages of colon cancer, but he's been subpoenaed to testify to a grand jury by Coakley. Coakley wants to reopen the investigation into the mysterious "suicide" of a cop who was about to expose Joe and Pleasant's corrupt dealings with Manny, who wants to clear his conscience before he dies. Pleasant tells Joe he needs to whack Manny to kill Coakley's case and make amends for all the trouble he caused him, and once that's done, he'll see about getting him in contact with his daughters, since he's owed a favor by a family court judge he helped cover up a fatal hit-and-run. But killing Manny in a matter of a few days proves virtually impossible, as he's under constant protection by his men and his empire is being run by his hot-tempered, idiot son Junior (Pat Healy), who warns Joe to stay away.

Joe is the perfect kind of antihero for this subgenre: a hapless shit magnet who can't stop fucking everything up. He talks a lot about "second chances" and "making things right," but even he knows he's full of shit. No one knows him better than his tough-love mother Irma (Jacki Weaver), who tells it like it is compared to his more enabling father Joe Sr. (Robert Forster), an arthritic, retired firefighter who just can't say no to his son. But you can see from his mournful expressions and his slumped shoulders that Joe Sr. knows his son is a lost cause. Staying out all night his first day out of jail and drinking at a bar, Joe returns home the next day to scornful criticism from Irma and tries to deflect it by showing off the sobriety chip he received in prison. She calls him out immediately, spitting "You expect me to be happy that you didn't drink while you were in jail?" Joe begins dating Manny's nurse Charlotte (Molly Parker), and the more involved they get, the darker the cloud you can practically see looming over her. Joe may have feelings for her, but first and foremost, he sees her as a way to get to Manny to save his own ass.

Danish actor Coster-Waldau, with a flawless American accent, is very good as Joe, who starts every day with the best intentions but can't maintain the illusion for very long, not even to himself. He's matched by Weaver and Forster (an unsung national treasure), both doing magnificent work as loving parents who can't figure out where they went wrong ("I saw something in you when you were young and I didn't do anything about it," his dad tells him as he's kicking him out of the house, adding "You bring mayhem with you, Joe"). Cole has one of his all-time great "Gary Cole" roles as the sarcastic and ironically-named Pleasant. Whether he's barking out some great quotables ("You're battin' zero, shithead," "Goddamn, I miss high school!" and "Figure it out! Put in some work instead of gettin' your dick wet," when Joe leaves Charlotte's place and tells him he can't get to Manny, and "If you can't clip Manny, clip the mutant," referring to the disfigured Coakley). Cult movie scenesters will also enjoy the brief appearances of Healy (THE INNKEEPERS, COMPLIANCE) and the ubiquitous Larry Fessenden--once a promising filmmaker before becoming the Michael J. Pollard of his generation--as a strip club manager. Director/co-writer Evan Katz (CHEAP THRILLS) lets the proceedings play out at a leisurely pace but, as things are wont to do in creative endeavors involving Macon Blair (who also has a supporting role as the younger brother of the "suicide" cop), things get much more dark and bleak as doomed inevitability runs its course. Even though he spent six years locked up, Joe is the kind of guy who can talk his way out of most dilemmas--dilemmas that he usually creates for himself. But as SMALL CRIMES reaches its legitimately shocking conclusion--the kind of ending that would probably induce an audible collective gasp from an audience if this was playing in theaters--it becomes clear that he's just about exhausted all of his chances and any amount of goodwill even from those closest to him. The story gets a little convoluted at times, especially in the way that Katz and Blair take almost the entire film to really let you in on what Joe did to end up where he is, but when the pieces fall into place, SMALL CRIMES is a worthy addition to the Six Degrees of Saulnier subgenre, if you will, and one of the better Netflix Originals of late.

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