When you attend a film festival, you go in expecting patterns to emerge, as programmers will often (both intentionally and inadvertently) discover themes in the cinema they’re showcasing. But what you don’t anticipate are two films playing at the same fest that are near indistinguishable from one another from the title on down. Such was the case at SXSW ’17, as two motion pictures – the Nelms Brothers’ Small Town Crime and E.L. Katz’s Small Crimes– have so much in common that you can’t believe anyone in the SX programming office didn’t take one title off the bill as to avoid said confusion.
Both movies follow similar neo-noir plotlines revolving around disgraced alcoholic cops becoming embroiled in nefarious goings-on in their respective municipalities. Small Town Crime sees John Hawkes investigating the mysterious death of a prostitute after being discharged from the force for being drunk on the job while his partner was shot dead. Small Crimes sees Joe (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) returning home after a six-year prison stint for the attempted murder of a District Attorney (which earned him the nickname “Slash Cop” from the local papers – a horror movie this writer now desperately wants to see). Both movies feature a pitch black sense of humor that is interrupted by flashes of brutal, gory violence. Both movies feature Robert Forster in a small supporting role. Both movies end with a shootout involving large-caliber automatic weapons (which are wielded by the movies’ respective misfits – Clifton Collins Jr. in Small Town Crime and Macon Blair in Small Crimes). Can you see how a badge holder might experience a temporary rush of déjà vu while viewing them in quick succession?
To be fair to all creative parties involved, if you watched these movies months apart from one another, the comparison would still be apt, but not as readily apparent. Where Small Town Crime’s sense of humor is much more quippy and cutesy, Small Crimes gets its giggles through gallows comedy and Coster-Waldau’s reactions to his character’s increasingly bleak situation. Joe’s predicament is a self-dug pit of despair, as the wholly unlikable asshole believes the grave he exhumed for himself in a haze of liquor, drugs and violence will just magically fill in, thanks to his going away and saying he’s sorry upon returning home. However, once a dirty ex-associate on the force (played with unctuous douchebaggery by Gary Cole) asks him to assassinate his former underworld rabbi due to the boss’ snitching to the DA Joe cut up, things get bloody real fast. Saying our anti-hero is conflicted about doing the deed would indicate he has a moral compass whatsoever (he sort of puts up a fight, I guess), and he’s quickly trying to smother the Mafioso with a pillow before the elderly crime lord’s cat lady nurse (Deadwood’s Molly Parker) interrupts.
Katz and his co-writer Blair (who, after I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, is proving to possess quite the impressive voice with a pen) lean hard into their story’s sinfulness, and that also separates it from the film that could’ve easily played in the next SXSW screening slot. Small Crimes owns the sensibilities of lurid dime store pulp, overcooked and completely missing any sort of reasonable voices aside from Joe’s parents (Forster and Jacki Weaver). Upping Small Crimes’ crazy is Pat Healy (rejoining Katz after the two rocked the filmmaker’s debut, Cheap Thrills) as the crime boss’ son, Junior. This heir apparent is an utter sociopath, threatening to take Joe to his own personal torture dungeon (which he lovingly refers to as his “playroom”).
Unfortunately, the movie gets so caught up in a bunch of convoluted local mythology that it only hands Healy a fistful of scenes in which he can mangle scenery. Worse yet, Joe’s romantic shenanigans are goofy at best, downright atonal at worst, as his barely developed romance with the hospice worker is scored with odd Hawaiian music from a lost Adam Sandler rom-com before the madness kicks back into high gear. For a movie with a rather straightforward narrative, it’s awfully confusing for anyone who isn’t already familiar with David Zeltserman’s 2008 novel of the same name. Why anyone is doing anything becomes the biggest mystery of all, as every bit of dialogue is delivered via shorthand and allusions to previous events, as if this is the seventh episode in the first season of a new HBO series.
If this review reads like the author is being overly hard on the work in question, its because he counts Cheap Thrills as being one of the best genre debuts in recent memory. Katz is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and Small Crimes is just as visually assured as that contained bit of comedic bloodletting (returning cinematographer Andrew Wheeler captures this seedy shindig with an eye for small town dreariness). Nonetheless, the programming choices of SXSW ’17 accidentally accented just how exceedingly generic the storyline of his sophomore outing really is. Everything in Small Crimes is ho-hum and unremarkable, moseying along before reaching a third act in which no one is left unscathed by Joe’s commitment to being a complete garbage person. Everyone involved in this endeavor is just too damned interesting to be mixed up in this messy, unmemorable piece of pulp, let alone have their nonspecific potboiler be placed next to a similarly silly noir lite just to confuse audiences further. Small Crimes should’ve been the triumphant return of a young, scrappy cinematic voice. Instead, it’s just a major disappointment.