Tension, drama and Denzel Washington – John Lee Hancock’s gritty neo-noir offering The Little Things was birthed from a draft script written by Hancock in 1993.
The Little Things laboured through decades in production hell until he decided to take it upon himself to direct, and this is no doubt why it contains much of the things seen in similar films of the era – a morally tortured protagonist, a young and eager partner, twisted murders and a consistently brooding atmosphere. All the right ingredients for a smash-hit story, that falls just short of making a mark.
Los Angeles in 1990. While driving down the highway, a young woman is doggedly pursued by a mysterious driver with an obvious murder kit in the boot of his souped-up muscle car. We know, within moments, that this is not his first hunt.
In Kern County, California, the quiet and lowly sheriff’s deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent down to the big city where he, much to the displeasure of his former colleagues in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, decides to stick around and insert himself into a murder case that bears many similarities to a case from his own detective days. While in L.A., Deacon pairs up with young gun detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and the chase is on.
Allow me to preface this review by stating that at face value, I did enjoy this film. But, like anything, it has flaws.
The Little Things, much as the title would suggest, is not a loud, shoot-em-up rollercoaster of a crime drama. It’s a slow, drawn out, somewhat intense character study of its leading men. The string of murders at the centre of their stories comes secondary to their psychology; Hancock wants to explore the often-overlooked emotional toll of police work, the way failure on the job can follow you throughout your career, and how desperation for answers can lead to irreversible mistakes. Deacon is haunted by his past, both literally and figuratively – he speaks to corpses with fondness and then at night when he’s alone and staring into the dark, the ghosts of victims past stare back at him. Baxter, the opposite, is full of bravado and seemingly unaffected by the cynicism of his seasoned colleagues, determined to work a case for all the right reasons, whatever he thinks they are – “I want to nail the bastard.” “For who?” “For all of the girls he killed.”
It is unfortunate to say this, considering both actors are well-regarded for obvious reasons, but the chemistry between Malek and Washington is almost non-existent. The script is sprinkled with teachable moments between the pair, like Deacon guiding Baxter to look at ‘the little things’ in the case that could help reveal their suspect. And sure, they have nice moments like sharing a breakfast together in Baxter’s home, but Deacon doesn’t really open up to the young detective in kind, leaving the ‘buddy cop’ partnership feeling a bit one-sided. For two guys trying to solve a serial murder case, one would want and expect a little more emotional bonding.
Where the film really picks up steam (and I loath to admit this) is with the introduction of Jared Leto’s character, Baxter and Deacon’s prime suspect Albert Sparma. Leto has thus far been nominated twice for this role, and it’s easy to understand why – he is surprisingly engaging from his first brief introduction to his very last frame and gives the film a welcome and much needed element of unpredictability. Sparma is creepy and quietly antagonistic, constantly forcing viewers to backflip between believing he is guilty or knowing he is innocent and indeed, he gives our detective duo a run for their money. Leto is very good at toying with his co-stars.
Compliments where compliments are due, Hancock did deliver some really nice shots throughout, in particular where flashbacks to Deacon’s past were concerned. Something as simple as having a different image, a memory, reflected in a car’s side-view mirror provides an interesting and enjoyable effect that helps set the film apart from its peers, if only marginally. Likewise, true crime buffs will love the subtle, almost off-hand reference to Richard Ramirez (a.k.a The Night Stalker) and the copy of Manson’s Helter Skelter seen inside Sparma’s home.
The influence of Los Angeles of that time remains painted across Hancock’s film, no doubt because a modern setting and all its gadgets would infringe upon some of the film’s finer moments.
But despite all of this, and despite having a solid cast, The Little Things lacks something. Much of the film, as enjoyable as it can be, feels as dated as its setting. Lines of dialogue feel ham-fisted and cringe-inducing (“How’s a guy with the best clearance rate in the department work 15 years without a promotion?” “Maybe I didn’t go to the right church.”) and the whodunit plot elements have less payoff than what some audiences might crave.
What John Lee Hancock has created would no doubt have been something truly buzz-worthy had it been released when the script was first written, and if you love a slow-burn that’s entirely character driven, it will appeal to you just fine. But after the release of genre classics like Fincher’s Se7en or even shows like True Detective or Mindhunter (again, Fincher’s influence), The Little Things does feel derivative and likely forgettable.