The Little Things is a movie writer/director John Lee Hancock has been trying to make for 30 years, and after seeing the finished product, it’s bizarre that he would be so devoted to such a pedestrian effort. Aside from its thematic conclusions (which I won’t spoil here), there’s nothing particularly disruptive or unique about what the film is doing. If anything, the film, despite ostensibly being a grisly crime thriller, is comforting for how closely it plays to the beats of a familiar genre. One would expect a movie that took 30 years to make and stars three Oscar-winners would somehow upend expectations, but until its final act, there’s not much of a twist, and when Hancock does shift directions, he does so in a way that feels oddly tone deaf.
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a deputy sheriff working in a rural county in October 1990 when he’s asked to go down to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence for a case. Once there, he comes across hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who’s working a case involving the serial murder of young women. Deke, a great detective who left the LAPD when a similar case obliterated his personal life, is drawn back into the mystery and decides to partner up with Baxter to work the investigation. Eventually, their search leads them to the creepy and threatening Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who seems to be goading them despite no evidence to connect him to the crimes.
There’s really not much more to the movie than that. If you’ve seen a movie where detectives are consumed by the case they’re working, then you’ve basically seen The Little Things. That’s not to say that no one is ever allowed to make that kind of movie again, and certainly when you’ve got acclaimed acting talent like Hancock does here, one would think that the filmmaker had created a dazzling example of the genre. Sadly, the only real standout here, aside from John Schwartzman’s moody cinematography, is Washington.
Washington has now reached the point in his career where he’s on the level of someone like Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks. He’s been so good for so long in so many things that we simply take him for granted. On paper, Deke is a fairly predictable and bland character, but you would never know it because Washington is so adept at adding little touches, flairs, and nuances that never dominate the frame. He sells us on Deke being haunted without being obvious about it, showing us his grim determination and the personal cost of that determination. It’s not the type of performance that wins awards or shows up in a highlight reel, and yet it’s a performance that deserves our praise because Washington continues to deliver terrific work.
Sadly, the same cannot be said about his co-stars. It’s not that Malek or Leto are “bad”, as much as neither one is used particularly well here. Malek excels when he’s playing outsiders. There’s a reason that hotel ad of him just naming things he likes came off as a cross between laughable and creepy, and that’s because “normal” is a bit outside his wheelhouse. Being asked to play an everyman like Baxter doesn’t do Malek any favors because his whole demeanor is a little too offbeat and strange to make us buy into his character.
As for Leto, he’s an actor who’s constantly undone by his need to let the audience know how hard he’s working. The more he tries to “disappear” into his characters, the more obvious he appears, which is why his stronger work is when he’s playing an average person rather than some nefarious outsider. The first time we get a look at Sparma, I couldn’t help but laugh because everything about the character feels overdone in a way that voids any reasonable humanity from his person. To put it another way, look at a film like Prisoners, which is also about obsessions with people who appear guilty. But the way the “guilty” are framed renders them pitiable victims of circumstance and mental illness. Leto’s Sparma feels like he went to Party City, bought the “Serial Killer” costume, and can’t wait to show it off to everyone he meets. Leto, in his desire to be creepy and unnerving, basically breaks the reality Hancock seeks to present.
When the film does finally reveal what it’s trying to do in its third act, I couldn’t help but meet the outcome with an annoyed shrug. Rather than taking a big swing, Hancock comes to a pat conclusion about our desire for finality in a profession that doesn’t always offer clear-cut answers. Films like Memories of Murder and Zodiac did this far better, and the way Hancock resolves his plot feels particularly icky when put into the context of events both contemporary to when he first started this script and current social ills. The Little Things is fine for some stylish cinematography and reliably great Washington performance, but those don’t make up for all the other places where the film stumbles.
This clip gets four stars.
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