Monday, 18 December 2017

Movie Review: Small Crimes (2017)



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The plot: After spending six years in prison, crooked cop Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been released. Wanting to make a fresh start, separate from the mob-facilitated jobs he was doing way back when, a favour from his former partner Dan Pleasant (Gary Cole) forces him back into that life. He is tasked with “taking care of” Manny Vassey (Shawn Lawrence), a mob boss who is considering turning informant and unearthing his dealings with the police, including both Joe and Pleasant. However, as he weighs up his options, it seems that his old life has only just begun to come back and haunt him.




Coster-Waldau is a great fit for the lead role, managing to balance out his character’s moral conflictions with a sense that he is a bit of an irrevocable douchebag. That said, he is a very fun irrevocable douchebag and one worth watching a whole film about. Jacki Weaver as his mother puts in a terrific performance, taking her role as the vehement voice of reason and giving all she’s got to make for a truly captivating presence. Robert Forster as his father does well on similar lines, being the more forgiving counterpoint to Weaver, but as the film goes on, bits of darker emotion start making themselves known and he handles the transition perfectly.

Cole as Lt. Pleasant is pleasant in name only, as he takes the notion of a dirty cop and wrings every bit of grime he can out of it. And honestly, knowing how good Cole can be with more subversive roles, this fits right in with some of his best work. Shawn Lawrence does well as the seeking-to-reform mob boss, Pat Healy is electrifying as his son Junior, Michael Kinney pulls through as the scorned district attorney, Macon Blair makes a nice addition to the cast as the only non-blood-relation that is willing to give Joe a chance, and Molly Parker works really damn well as the film’s moral centre Charlotte.

Given the world that the Black Lives Matter movement has forged in its wake, stories about dirty cops are definitely in vogue and have been for some time now. Of course, just pinning this down as a story about police corruption doesn’t feel right, given this film’s ambitions are a bit bigger than that. At its core, this is a story about second chances; specifically, whether some people deserve them. In regards to Joe’s character, the film actually goes through a few different perspectives on the idea. We have the moral ambiguity in regards to how deserving he is of a second chance, we have circumstances pushing him back into his old ways, we have constant doubt from those around him about his true intentions; we even get a false flag situation where someone tries to make it look like Joe roughed them up, just as an excuse to exact “vengeance” and get him back in jail. For as shady as Joe’s character is from the offset, the writing makes sure to surround him with so many possibilities that the audience is kept on their toes.

But maybe it does that job a little too well. The big recurring notion of the film is Joe’s morality and where it stands, but it feels too even-handed for either option to work. When the film tries to sell us on Joe being the same dude he was when he went into prison, that’s undercut by how hesitant he gets when it comes time to “do his job” as it were. When the film tries to sell us on Joe having changed and becoming a new person, the way we keep seeing him rehearse what he’s going to say to people (as if he’s practicing for an acting gig) makes us question how sincere he is. It’s a tough tightrope walk, and if it wasn’t for Coster-Waldau being as engaging as he is, I suspect the film would have just fallen off that tightrope. Not to say that his more remorseful actions are bad on their own; when we get to him tearfully confessing to Charlotte what he did to get in prison, you buy that this is a guy full of regret. His less savoury actions work well on their own as well; there’s definite comedy to get out of him going to a particular strip club and seeing the “regular entertainment”.

Then again, this mixed approach might be part of the point. No two people will have exactly the same stance when it comes to a guilty person being forgiven. I’ve made brief mention in the past about my own policy on the matter, that being any person can be forgiven for an action under the right circumstances, but that’s just my stance. We live in the 21st century: Things are happening way too fast for us to be second-guessing ourselves, and unfortunately, some people just flat-out are beyond redemption. Compassion will always be a welcome choice, but the human heart is too light to handle putting your trust and faith into someone… only for them to abjectly let you down. I was one of the few people willing to take Kevin Spacey’s apology at face value (bullshit deflection tactic notwithstanding); that kind of regret fucking hurts. What I’m getting at with all this is that Joe’s journey through this story, weaving through the numerous hurdles and threats thrown his way, is a real damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t situation. No matter what direction he takes, it can only end badly. Because even though he claims to be a changed man, his past actions have already laid the groundwork for how the rest of the world will perceive him… and even the people on his side aren’t too thrilled with him.

All in all, this is a decent morality play. The acting is solid across the board, the direction allows for some legitimately impressive visuals, and the writing gets pretty uncompromising in its depiction of a man who may be too far gone to be redeemed. However, even though the balanced approach yields some compelling results, it ends up sapping away at the film’s overall impact before too long. I’d say give it a shot if you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix.

It ranks higher than Jesus, Bro!, as this doesn’t any irritating running gags to drag down its strengths. The intention behind that movie is still commendable, but the journey getting there can get real bumpy. However, this is still only serviceable; some of the technical aspects took me by surprise, but nothing here really grabbed me that hard. As such, it ranks just below Goodbye Christopher Robin, which may have been muddled but its core sentiment is a lot stronger and makes for a more compelling narrative overall.

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