Mysteries on the Small Screen: SMALL CRIMES

Mystery Month 2017Title: Small Crimes

Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jacki Weaver, Robert Forster, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Macon Blair, Pat Healy

First Aired: April 28, 2017 (Netflix)

Where you can watch it: Netflix

Cat ladies suffer from a distinct dearth of positive representation in film and on television. Almost always, we are portrayed as one-dimensional punchlines, our precious, precious cats reduced to fuzzy shorthand for immaturity, instability, or worse. Not so for Charlotte Boyd (Molly Parker), the incredibly appealing, complicated cat lady featured in Small Crimes, a darkly comic noir released in late April.

Molly Parker in Small Crimes

Along with newly minted ex-con Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), we first encounter Charlotte in the home of Manny Vassey (Shawn Lawrence), a very sick, very old, very bad man who, on his deathbed, has decided to spill the beans about his involvement in a treacherous conspiracy—a move that would land Joe straight back in the joint. Charlotte works as the old stoolie’s caregiver, a position hunky Joe soon inveigles to exploit. Charlotte invites Joe to her apartment, which she shares with a cat she enjoys petting and talking to. Initially, the situation seems fairly cliched: Handsome, rakish criminal uses sex to manipulate lonely, desperate spinster. But Small Crimes is a much better movie than that.

Some of us remember Molly Parker from Deadwood and her role as Widow Garrett. Although Charlotte Boyd is a much smaller role, Parker imbues it with just as much (barely) repressed desire. Her appearance helps: She’s a pale brunette with excellent posture, a slender figure, and a well-bread mien, but there’s something deeply mischievous about her pursed lips, and she’s second-to-none at conveying hidden, sexy depths with her crinkly eyes—Marion the Librarian by way of Ava Gardner.

By the time Charlotte decides to throw her lonely lot in with Joe’s crooked one, we know she’s in it for more than companionship. Although we never learn what brings her to town, it soon becomes apparent that she’s capable of acts far more unpleasant than changing the litterbox.

At the time of this writing, Small Crimes has accrued an astonishingly tepid critical consensus on review aggregator sites—not only unfair to Molly Parker, but to the whole cast, who delivers unfailingly stellar performances. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does a splendid job of portraying a hapless man-child whose selfishness harms everyone, as do Jacki Weaver and Robert Forster as his long-suffering parents.

This is to say nothing of the thrillingly twisty script, adapted from a 2008 Dave Zeltserman novel of the same name. (Watch a fun A. V. Club interview with Coster-Waldau and creators Evan Katz and Macon Blair here; they talk about their literary influences, including the mutual love for Jim Thompson that brought them together.) The plot, which offers as much pathos as but far more slapstick than When the Devil Knows You’re Dead, leaves us gasping to the last—and gives the feline-inclined hope for better tomorrows.

 

Other dark works of fiction featuring multidimensional cat ladies:

Bitter Bronx, by Jerome Charyn

Navel of the Moon, by Mary Helen Lagasse

Trace Elements, by Tracy Knight

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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