A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2021


2021, R, 127 mins

Denzel Washington as Joe "Deke" Deacon  /  Rami Malek as Jim Baxter  /  Jared Leto as Albert Sparma  /  Chris Bauer as Sal Rizoli  /  Terry Kinney as Captain Farris  /  Michael Hyatt as Flo Dunigan  /  Natalie Morales as Detective Jamie Estrada

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock

THE LITTLE THINGS comes off as a throwback serial killer/police procedural thriller with definitive echoes of past efforts like SEVEN.  It should come as no surprise, then, that this is John Lee Hancock written and directed effort has been a self proclaimed passion project for him for over thirty years and was actually penned in the early 1990s (with hopes of Steven Spielberg helming it).  With Hancock having a reasonable amount of industry clout now (having made such audience favorites like SAVING MR. BANKS and THE BLIND SIDE while also quarterbacking underrated gems like THE FOUNDER and THE ALAMO remake), he now has been afforded the opportunity to make his film, with its period 90s setting compellingly intact.  THE LITTLE THINGS is efficiently made and features a staggeringly well assembled cast of Oscar winners, but as an enthralling whodunit period mystery thriller it sort of writes itself into a corner and struggles to find ways to come to a satisfying (or believable) sense of closure. 

But, yeah, the filmmaking and performance craft is in mostly fine form here, which helps overcome some of more overused and tired genre conventions of Hancock's scripting (we have the aging and disgraced big city cop now working small town beats that's called back into action in the big city to work with a young new hotshot detective with a vastly different working style to solve a big case...so, yeah, no genre stone left unturned here).  Even when THE LITTLE THINGS begins in a way that will seem painfully familiar to fans of these types of noirs, Hancock does manage to find ways to compellingly subvert expectations in the middle sections of the piece.  It's at this point when it becomes more than just a race across time to nab a mass murderer and instead delves into the wounded psyche and tortured past of the aforementioned older cop.  The ending (which I'll get to in a bit without any spoilers) aims for haunting ambiguity without a clear black and white sense of resolution, but it seems like a bit of a letdown considering all of the possibilities leading into it. 

THE LITTLE THINGS does have a banger opening (set in the fall of 1990), though, as it showcases a young woman's frightened struggles against another predatory driver that seems hell bent on running her off the road.  From here we're introduced to small town California officer Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), who was once a decorated and respected L.A. homicide detective that - due to reasons the script is in no rush to reveal, to its credit - had a serious falling out with the force that led to his exile out.  He's giving a fairly routine assignment by one of his superiors to head back to the City of Angles to secure some evidence from police custody, which Joe begrudgingly agrees to.  When he arrives some of his past colleagues greet him with either open arms or distrusting glances, but what really sparks Joe's interest back at his old stomping grounds is a media scrum headed up by the smooth talking and college educated detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who briefs the press on a recent string of unsolvable murders.  Predictably, the wily old vet in Joe thinks that Jim's methods aren't yielding results, whereas Jim thinks that Joe's antiquated methods have no place in modern law enforcement.   



Yet, something about the inquisitive Joe connects with Jim, and he allows for him to tag along to the next murder victim crime scene to see if he can possibly notice anything about of the ordinary that his team missed.  The more time Joe starts to fixate on the crime scene the more his past starts to creep up on him, which further prompts his once subjugated obsessive drives to re-ignite.  As Joe gets deeply embroiled in this series of ghastly murders it becomes clear to Jim that his new impromptu partner's interest in the case cut more deeper and personal that he could have ever imagined.  The odd couple pair decide that the best course of action moving forward is to combine their polar opposite skill sets to nab the culprit, and their work pays off with a suspect in Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who seems like a very worthy guilty candidate, but a lack of tangible evidence hurts Joe and Jim's case, which leads to the team employing some, shall we say, off the books tactics. 

Right off the bat with THE LITTLE THINGS it's abundantly clear that Hancock is trying to work outside of his normal audience pleasing wheelhouse, which is commendable in itself.  Considering the mostly light hearted fare that has typified his resume as of late, going extremely dark with THE LITTLE THINGS should be applauded. That's not to say that Hancock completely breaks from troupes, though, and his film is certainly peppered by an overall sense of scripting deju vu.  We've seen so many procedurals about veteran cops taking rookie cops under their unorthodox tutelage to nab a serial killer whose identity is constantly evading them.  Then, of course, we get hints here and there that the veteran has skeletons in his closet that may or may not cloud his sound mind and judgment on the case.  And, yes, there have been thrillers before that have had detectives driven all but mad by their fanaticism to solve a new case.  This is all recognizable stuff, to be sure, but Hancock is wise enough to never fully embrace such formulas and opts to hone in on the psychological underpinnings of Joe's thirst to justice.  In many respects, THE LITTLE THINGS becomes less about the killer himself and more about what unhealthily drives the hero. 

That's the interesting hook here.  The investigation elements are all perfunctorily in place, but much of THE LITTLE THINGS is concerned with unwrapping the mystery of Joe's past L.A. detective work and how that may or may not negatively impart his mindset in the present.  In this respect, there are two mysteries at play here: The first third of the film hones in on the more obligatory aspects of Joe and Jim's sleuthing, and the mid sections chronicle the slow reveal of Joe's demons that still torment him.  All of this builds to a crescendo with the appearance of the quietly menacing - but potentially innocent - Sparma, who certainly looks and fits the part of a murderer.  But is he truly guilty?  Joe sure seems to think so, as he's so disturbed by the memories of all of those victims of his old cases that he's just sure that Sparta fits the profile.  Like, damn sure.  Still, Joe and Jim lack anything concrete to put this man away.  Sparta knows that these guys have so little on him, and he utilizes that to push their buttons during interrogations. 

The performances are key throughout all of this, and THE LITTLE THINGS gets two out of three right.  Washington brings so much authentic layers of buried hurt and regret in his role here that you never once doubt any scene he occupies in the film, even when the screenplay somewhat spirals out of control as it approaches its climax.  Joe is an introverted and low key soul that seems like he can boil over at any moment, and Washington is a crafty enough performer to tap into that with his trademark precision.  Leto, on the other hand, is given the juicier role as this chilling weirdo that looks like a junkie Jesus hiding in the shadows.  I've seen some comment that Leto overplays the role, which is misleading.  He's more quietly flamboyant and chillingly eccentric, but his performance is not manic.  The best scenes in the film showcase this mind game nutcase verbally sparing with Washington's increasingly agitated detective, and the two play off of one another wonderfully.  Malek, in the other hand, is the weak link of the trio, and rarely seems completely plausible as a ruthlessly determined detective.  There's so much peculiar twitchiness to his performance here that I spent much of the latter part of watching THE LITTLE THINGS thinking that he might have fared better in the suspect role and that he and Leto should have swapped roles.  Now, that would have made for a more fascinating watch. 

THE LITTLE THINGS also incorrigibly forces viewers to check their brains at the doors in a few instances (which is not a good look for a thriller that's trying to be grounded and gritty).  There's something to be said about how utterly far-fetched it is to have Joe being allowed to work in close conjunction with the L.A.P.D. on a massive case when one realizes that he's essentially a disgraced ex-big city cop that many in the department think is no good.  Granted, without Joe and Jim working together, we'd have no film.  Then there's is the ending of the piece, which will easily and greatly polarize audiences.  I get where Hancock and company are trying to go with it (once again, the build up to the final showdown between all parties bares an uncanny resemblance to the final moments of SEVEN) and he's attempting for a ballsy denouement that pulls the rug out of viewers feet and ends on a downer beat.  The ending on display just didn't work for me; it never felt as coarsely raw edged  as it wanted to be.  I'm really on the fence with THE LITTLE THINGS, mostly because there's much to admire and chastise here in equal measure.  I'm giving it a passing 3-star grade for the strengths of the actors (well, two of them, anyway) and for how well oiled and involving aspects of its narrative were.  Hancock has made a somewhat dated film in many respects (at the risk of beating a dead horse, it's a SEVEN clone), but there's enough good will here to appease crime genre fans. 

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