The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Antiheroes are tricky creatures. There’s a delicate dance between heroes and villains that every writer must learn when they’re carving out a respectable antihero. They can’t be evil, but they can’t be too good, either. They can’t be too reckless, but they also can’t be a cub scout. Over the years, a number of screenwriters have come out of the wood work to make bold, articulated antiheroes their calling, from Paul Schrader’s Travis Bickle to John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken to, well, the rogues gallery of lovable fuck ups that Quentin Tarantino has splattered across celluloid for over two decades. But, some filmmakers aren’t interested in having their audiences root for their characters, some simply want to carve out supreme assholes whose quirks and maladies are at the expense of everyone around them. One such filmmaker is rising champ E. L. Katz.
A few years ago, Katz broke through with a curiously underrated indie thriller by the name of Cheap Thrills. Starring Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton, and the inimitable Pat Healy, the grizzly film offered gory stakes between two would-be friends who became entangled in a bloody match-up that, well, didn’t exactly end peachy. It was visceral yet hilarious, terrifying yet exhilarating, a film that totally lived up to its name. Now, some three years later, Katz has returned with another macabre tale called Small Crimes. Co-written by Jeremy Saulnier go-to actor Macon Blair, who recently turned heads with his feature-length debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, the film follows a disgraced cop who’s released from prison, only to enter a world of trouble when a dying mob boss decides to confess his sins before he keels over.
Once more, Katz works with a kinetic and inspired cast, featuring Game of Thrones hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the ex-cop Joe Denton, veteran heavies Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver as a very bewildered Mr. and Mrs. Denton, House of Cards heroine Molly Parker as an all-too-forgivable nurse, an ever-reliable Blair as an all-too-gullible friend, a supremely terrifying Healy as a mob boss’ dickhead son, and the one and only Gary Cole as a dirty cop trying to cover his dirty ass. Everyone gives it their all, especially Forster and Weaver as the emotionally-drained parents, but this entire story rests on the shoulders of Coster-Waldau, who finally has a non-HBO role that’s worth chewing on. The traditionally one-handed Lannister is just as humbled on screen here, hobbling through one problem after another with enough humility to make Trump blush.
Though, unlike similar thrillers cut from the same antihero cloth, Katz and Blair aren’t too concerned with frivolous and expected dalliances like redemption or honor. Instead, they run Coster-Waldau through the ringer, capitalizing on an unforgiving narrative that may be too bleak and uncompromising for some. And unlike Cheap Thrills, Small Crimes adopts a more fatalistic style that’s akin to Saulnier’s hard-boiled thrillers as of late, balancing dark turns with gritty realism that make each outcome even more jarring. Granted, the balancing act doesn’t always go as planned, and there are certainly some tonal issues in a number of scenes — ahem, the love story that’s soldered in; the ridiculous gun fight — but it’s a sour character study that’s always held at arm’s length, all while you’re duck-taped to a chair wondering what’s going on. It’s fun.
But, that feeling shouldn’t be too alien, at least not if you’ve loved the genre as late. Because, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s something going on with American indie thrillers right now, whether it’s Cheap Thrills or Blue Ruin or Green Room or this. Moviegoers are actually experiencing breathless terror once again, and the kind that has nothing to do with the paranormal or any over-the-top stakes. No, these are stories brimming with ruthless anxiety, and a large part of that has to do with the fact that they’re filled with believable characters who are tested with tangible situations, and those situations all have unparalleled consequences that speak to the level of risks each filmmaker is willing to take on any given project. Small Crimes offers big thrills, and they’re not always cheap; in fact, they’re pretty cold-hearted and that’s exactly the point.