The Little Things, 2021.
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, and Glenn Morshower
Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment. Instead, he becomes embroiled in the search for a serial killer with potential links to his past.
The Little Things is a script which has been knocking around since director John Lee Hancock wrote a first draft for Steven Spielberg way back in 1993, which he ultimately passed on because it was too dark. It doesn’t appear that much has been changed in any subsequent rewrites, because this is still a pitch black noir, it’s still set in the 90s, and it feels like you’ve seen it a few dozen times since that decade came to an end.
That doesn’t mean the dated framing can’t work in its favour though. It’s refreshing not to see mobile phones playing a pivotal role in plot propulsion, with the technology on display stretching to that of a pager. It gives the serial killer whodunnit element a real old-fashioned detective vibe, which plays wonderfully into the world weary character of Denzel Washington’s Deacon.
Comparisons can be made to True Detective‘s debut season, which was a similar time-capsule casefile that peered into the darker recesses of human behaviour in a slow-burn fashion.
Where the age of the script counts against The Little Things is in how it has clearly been informed by Se7en, right down to the topography of the finale’s pivotal scene. You get the feeling that the writers have watched Fincher’s serial killer masterpiece so many times and just hope that there’s enough distance between the films for people not to notice. Newsflash; there isn’t.
Hancock’s film is one of two halves; the first is a terrific procedural drama which drops breadcrumbs not only about the murder case at the dark heart of the story, but also about the characters. Both Washington and Malek are introduced as archetypes; grizzled old pro with a murky past and a pressed shirt young upstart with the media in his back pocket. The film slowly chipping away at their respective veneers is almost as intriguing as the hunt for the killer. Washington might be on cruise control, but even that default setting ensures you’re unable to take your eyes off him. Whereas Malek, who threatens to be a one-dimensional by-the-books cop, quickly has his harder edges worn down, and becomes a much more interesting character because of it.
It’s the introduction of Jared Leto’s Albert Sparma that tips the balance in the second half of The Little Things, which up until then has been a deliberate, often unsettling walk amongst the shadows and peeled paint apartment blocks of Los Angeles. It’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just that the focus of the entire film shifts towards him, seemingly abandoning the mood and dread of the first half in favour of a pursue the looney payoff. Sparma feels like a caricature, and that doesn’t sit right with the rest of this maudlin murder mystery. If he was more evenly spread throughout the case, or been a John Doe style final reel reveal, then it might have been more effective.
As it stands The Little Things is a serial killer movie modus operandi we’ve seen a hundred times before, but buoyed by Denzel Washington’s compelling presence, and a sense of unease built by Hancock’s solid direction, you’ll forgive the fact that a script nearly thirty years old couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion to the brilliance of its slow-burn build-up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter