Peter Dinklage is one of the subtlest and most magnetic actors now working. Fans of his work in HBO's Game of Thrones can readily attest to this, but ever since his 2003 breakthrough performance in The Station Agent, I've wondered if other filmmakers would seize the opportunity and the challenge of taking his diminutive height in stride, and write lead roles that would allow him to further mine his fascinating depths and fierce comic sense. Alexandre Rockwell has done exactly that with Pete Smalls Is Dead.
The director's fifth feature since his 1992 breakout, In the Soup, is a ticklish lark, a thriller that somersaults from one shaggy bit of jeopardy to the next in the tradition of John Huston's Beat the Devil, with Dinklage in the Humphrey Bogart role of last sane man in the room. He's trying to track the fate of a former friend who may be dead, or may merely be in hiding — he is open to either possibility; nothing surprises him.
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Perhaps his physical stature prompts strangers to perform for him in a kind of uninhibited high relief, or maybe the world is always this insane, but he sees it with clearer eyes than most. Either way, Rockwell creates around him a free-floating circus of grotesques (Hollywood & Vine variety with a few Eastern bloc mobsters thrown in) played by a cast of character actors, including Mark Boone Junior, Richie Coster, Rosie Perez, Michael Lerner, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth and Seymour Cassel. This gallery of flamboyant performances is held together by Dinklage's mysterious gravitas, an aura of melancholy irony that makes his wry humor and the film's punchy comedy all the more deeply enjoyable, and memorable. —F.X. Feeney (Monica)