This might come as a shock, but there are a lot of criminals in Life of Crime. We start with two small time hoods (Ordell and Louis, played by Mos Def and John Hawkes respectively) who want to kidnap a slumlord’s wife and hold her for ransom. It quickly escalates from there, because to pull it off the kidnapping they’re going to need help from a violent Neo-Nazi who can give them guns and a place to stash her until the ransom is paid. Of course, the kidnapping doesn’t go exactly as planned, so that creates some more accomplices – people who don’t report the crime to the police for their own selfish reasons, or other people who find out about the blackmail and try to twist it to their own advantage.
The moral universe of Life of Crime interests me, because theoretically just about everyone in this movie is a bad guy, but some of these characters seem sympathetic and others don’t. Specifically, the fact that Ordell and Louis are likeable even though they’re willing to go into business with a racist psychopath is fascinating to me. They would probably seem benign because they're being contrasted with Frank Dawson, the slumlord played by Tim Robbins. Frank isn’t just a criminal, he’s an asshole – he’s always condescending to his wife, he’s a drunk, and he’s a cheat who has made millions through real estate scams that hurt poor people, and for all of those white collar sins he puts the blue collar criminals in a good light. Which raises the question: is being an asshole worse than being an armed hoodlum?
On some level, I’m asking a philosophical question, but it’s actually a concrete problem faced by Mickey Dawson, Frank's kidnapped wife. Once it becomes clear that Frank might not pay the ransom she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: the kidnappers are holding a gun to her head, but they also treat her as kindly as they can under the circumstances. Meanwhile Frank isn’t violent, but he’s a selfish monster. So where do her sympathies lie? With the blackmailers who put her in this situation in the first place, or her dick husband who refused to get her out of it? If she's going to survive she's going to have to think on her feet and get one of them to help her out.
As a crime caper movie Life of Crime isn’t particularly special – it has an amiable charm, but the plot has too many predictable beats. (Of course the kidnapping doesn't go smoothly; these things never do.) But it does have something to offer as a morality play, because it’s an interesting case study of the boundaries of dickishness. Apparently, you can be forgiven for major crimes if you commit them nicely, but if you are a dick who does something relatively minor (like cheat on your wife) then you’re the worst. Life of Crime's attitude towards crime isn't always consistent or sensible - but then again, it isn't called Logic of Crime for a reason.