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REVIEW: The Little Things Misses the Bigger Picture

January 26, 2021 10:00 | By
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Denzel Washington in The Little Things

In Warner Bros.’ upcoming The Little Things, Denzel Washington’s Joe “Deke” Deacon, a washed up, small town deputy sheriff, is caught in a race-against-the-clock investigation into a serial killer opposite LAPD Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek).

At first glance, Deke and Baxter appear to inhabit a dark, psychological crime thriller in the mode of Prisoners or even The Silence of the Lambs, but dragged down by a meandering, bait-and-switch script from Writer/Director John Lee Hancock, The Little Things is neither of those films, nor is it much of the neo-noir crime thriller it aspires to be. It is, instead, a pale shadow of the pictures that inspired it, but missing a critical element—a point.

In the movie’s opening sequence, an unseen, menacing figure stalks a woman through a darkened road somewhere in Southern California circa 1990. After the woman inexplicably stops at a bar for help (rather than, you know, drive on), the chase becomes a foot sequence that ends when the would-be victim flags down a truck driver to aid her. Cut to morning, when Los Angeles cops are inspecting a crime scene after uncovering a ghastly murder. This sort of confusing, “what happened to who” set up is endemic in this genre. Typically, though, and quite unlike in this picture, the layers reveal themselves into something cohesive and perhaps even surprising. It does not make sense at first, so it makes grandiose sense later. Not so here.

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Washington with Rami Malek in The Little Things

Next, we encounter Washington’s Deke, an aging, hardened deputy in Kern County, at the southern tip of California’s Central Valley. Deke’s boss tasks him with collecting a critical piece of evidence from their Los Angeles counterparts, sending Deke, unwittingly, into his old stomping grounds, where the investigation into a serial killer awaits, intertwined with a myriad ghosts from Deke’s past.

Deke encounters the young and ambitious Baxter (Malek), who is determined to find the heartless murderer of several young women in the area. The two form an unlikely and informal alliance—Deke apparently left the LAPD under mysterious and untoward circumstances that make official participation in the case unwise. Eventually, the two settle upon the indescribably creepy Albert Sparma, a raggedly-coiffed and midsection-enlarged Jared Leto, as their prime suspect.

For most of its runtime, The Little Things properly travels many of the clichés you may expect from a movie with this sort of gaudy aspirations. There are flashbacks and reenactments of gruesome crimes scenes, a slick and no nonsense medical examiner, other suspicious gumshoes (including one played by Natalie Morales), and good cop/bad cop routines shot through one way mirrors. One or more of them hold a vital key to the proceedings… maybe.

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Malek with Jared Leto in The Little Things

From a technical standpoint, Hancock’s film also strikes the right notes. John Schwartzman’s at times darkened, at times shadowy, at times sweeping cinematography is the Director of Photography’s best work. With its variance and depth, it represents a clear step up in nuance and complexity since The Highwaymen, his last collaboration with Hancock. Thomas Newman adds on a spooky, unobtrusive score that punctuates the quiet, eerie solitude of night, during which most of the proceedings take place. Crisp editing by Robert Frazen (who also worked on The Highwaymen) keeps the action moving between the two supposed heroes and their principal suspect as the plot thickens.

What can one really say that audiences have not already come to expect from the trio of impressive actors headlining this film? Washington, accustomed to playing the wiser, embittered character, infuses Deke with a sad, pathetic aura, the result of a tax on his personal life exacted by Deke’s obsessive work ethic. Malek, slight as he is, persuades you that he is a detective to be taken seriously. Leto is as creepy and strange as he has ever been—ever more so, perhaps, than the villainous characters he played in Suicide Squad and Blade Runner 2049.

How could it be, then, that The Little Things has so little things to offer and ends up a big disappointment? Quite simply: there is no there, there. To be effective, a story of this nature needs to feature a steady, internally consistent build-up, leading to an impressive twist or payout (think Gone Girl), an exciting or even terrifying conclusion after an accelerating crescendo (think of Boston crime dramas like Mystic River), or a disturbing finale that forces the viewer to revisit the entire story with fresh eyes of horror and understanding (think Se7en). Hancock’s script has none of the above.

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The Little Things

As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Deke harbors a dark secret from his time as a big city officer. At some point, he even instructs (or warns?) Baxter that “it is the little things that get you caught” as a criminal. “Is he or isn’t he?” is the question that The Little Things, like other supposed mind bending suspense movies want you to anxiously ponder. Is the unstable Sparma really the killer? Could it be our heroic Deke or even Baxter? What exactly happened to Deke that had him running from Tinseltown?

None of these questions are answered with any “oomph” or even any particularity. The result is that, rather than surprise you, the story bores you. Rather than invite you to look back at the clues you may have missed, the outcome makes you wonder why you bothered in the first place. Rather than impress with creativity, the supposed twist makes you question the screenwriter’s ability to stick a landing. There is nothing to ponder, nothing to ruminate over, nothing to be awed by.

The tidbits about the noxious effect of violent police work on humans never coalesce and are not enough to carry this picture—if they are even what audiences look for from this style of movie. The realizations that humans are imperfect, that nothing is what it seems, and that there is no hope for any of us, are both too obvious and too undeveloped. In short, little of this plot is put together, little coalesces, little is genuinely exciting.

When all is said and done, The Little Things is left with showy acting, showy technical visuals—and nothing at all to show for it.

Grade: C-

The Little Things opens nationwide on Friday, January 29, and it will also be available on HBO Max.