There’s something about the rugged, rawboned Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau that says “ex-con.” We see it, when we can get past the “Game of Thrones” persona HBO made for him. And he sees it, which is why he’s made a couple of movies playing just that sort of character.
“Shot Caller” was, if not a break-out, at least a streaming hit that cashed-in on his “GOT” fame and fan club. Not all that, but being the hot new premium TV star of the moment, it proved he can draw an audience and good actors to be in his supporting cast.
“Small Crimes,” the ex-con noir that preceded that, was a proof-of-concept picture, and something of an over-reach. It’s dark and twisted, and his character is thoroughly amoral. Coster-Waldau can pull the man-of-violence capable of superficial charm thing off.
But one gets the impression this E.L. Katz (“Cheap Thrills”) adaptation of a David Zelxterman novel is supposed to be funny, here and there. It, and Coster-Waldau, aren’t, despite his best efforts.
It’s right there in the opening scene, a convict we can see right through bluffing his way through remorse, repentance and rehabilitation in a meeting with the prison chaplain.
One last thing. Want to take confession before you go?
“Nah. I’m good.”
Just like that, Joe Denton is back out in the world, back in Bradley County (filmed in suburban Montreal), back with his wary parents (the wonder Jacki Weaver and Robert Forster), ready to reconnect with his ex-wife and two-daughters.
They’ve dropped out of sight, although a quick trip to the library lets him track them down. No, they’re not interested. Yes, there’s a restraining order.
A glimpsed headline suggests the main reason — “Slash cop goes free.” He was a police officer who cut somebody up. And that wasn’t the half of it. As former colleagues spit on him in public, as his father seems reluctant to embrace him and his own mother questions “whether you’ve changed,” as dirty detective Gary Cole (quite good) tasers him, makes threats that push him towards violence, we get the picture.
Joe Denton wasn’t just a violent, dirty cop. He was the most violent, the dirtiest. And now the district attorney (Michael Kinney) that he went after with a razor is snooping around, questioning the aged mobster (Shawn Lawrence) who used to pull Joe’s strings.
The dirty detective wants to just-served-six-years dirty cop to “DO something.” Otherwise, “You’ll be back inside so fast your bunk’ll still be warm!”
The DA’s daughter (Daniela Sandiford) lures him into an ambush. His only friend in town (co-screenwriter Macon Blair) is asking questions about an “accidental” death. And the mobster, on his death-bed, isn’t cooperating.
“You know, sometimes when I’m sleeping, I think I see what hell looks like… And it ain’t fire, and it ain’t devils. You know what it is? It’s just me.”
The trouble with Joe is, everybody knows how awful he is and sees right through him. He rehearses what he’s going to say to “make amends” to someone he’s wronged, “I am profoundly sorry,” and we know he’s not. He’s “working the (AA 12) steps,” he says. But he’s getting picked up in the local bar, doing shots at the strip joint.
The old mobster’s hospice nurse (Molly Parker) should see through him, too. We can see his manipulations — getting close to somebody who nurses a guy he needs dead, somebody with access to all sorts of drugs. But her? Sure, he looks like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but as we’ve established, he looks like an ex-con, and acts like one, too. What’s her angle?
That’s a big shortcoming in the ironically-titled “Small Crimes.” As the filth and corruption spread far and wide, as the walls close in on Joe, we don’t don’t empathize with his plight or believe anybody could fall for his various attempts at BS.
And there just aren’t enough surprises in the plot to make up for that. Too few people have “an angle.” Too many coincidences drive the story, especially the finale.
Too many moments that should play as darkly-funny just don’t.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, drugs, nudity
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jacki Weaver, Gary Cole, Robert Forster and Molly Parker
Credits: Directed by E.L. Katz, script by Macon Blair and E.L. Katz, based on a novel by David Zeltserman. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:35