The script for The Little Things was developed back in the early 90s. Some big names were once attached (including Spielberg). Cut to today – filmmaker John Lee Hancock has decided to helm his own script, still securing some major names in the process (three Oscar winners). It’s a notable piece of trivia, as The Little Things is set in the early 90s, which ends up making this neo-noir crime thriller feel odd. There’s not much in the way of style, but this era also means characters can’t rely on technology to help them with their job. Ideally, that could add up to a compelling, stripped-down piece of filmed entertainment, and yet, there’s only so much urgency, and the results feel pretty bare.
A solid opening brings us into a dreary world where a serial killer is on the loose in Los Angeles. A Kern County Deputy, Joe “Deke” Deacon, played by an aged Denzel Washington, finds himself drawn into the case, as he sees similarities in recent events to one he’s investigated before (back when he was a higher-ranked cop working in LA). Deke initially butts heads with Rami Malek’s LA detective Jim Baxter. However, the two begin working together more closely when it comes to their suspicions of Jared Leto’s oddball character, Albert Sparma.
This is the rare film, in recent years, where Leto’s entrance around the hour mark actually makes the film better. In the realm of strange characters that may or may not be serial killers, Leto’s Albert has a level of restraint that subverts certain aspects of a film like this, and his whole vibe is offputting in the right sort of ways. His presence does plenty to liven up this dreary film. That’s not to say the effort isn’t there in the filmmaking to present a dark tone fitting of the premise, but The Little Things often feels minimalist in a way that’s not so much a creative choice as it is a struggle to find ways to get more than just reliable work from Washington and Malek (to a lesser degree), let alone make the film feel any more populated than one shot during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Once Albert becomes a part of the film, even the Thomas Newman score seems to finally get into gear, turning this slow-paced character study into the psychological crime thriller it wants to be. It makes me feel bad for Washington. Back in the 90s, he turned down the chance to play the Brad Pitt role in David Fincher’s Seven. Looking at Fallen, The Bone Collector, and now The Little Things, it feels like he’s been chasing that chance to be on that level ever since. Obviously, Washington has had plenty of great efforts in the time between then and now, but even when his typical strengths are matched with an exceptional level of world-weariness, as presented in this film, he’s still a very reliable screen presence.
Pairing him with Malek is an interesting choice. More than 25 years younger than Washington, Malek looks notably less seasoned and, at first, comes off quite brash in his attempts to show superiority, given his character’s rank. However, the introduction of his family life and the eventual teaming up between him and Washington works well in creating a watchable dynamic. Seeing a film take the time to show people who are good at their jobs performing the work the best they can be a very good thing (Unstoppable is a masterful example). For The Little Things, I see how this approach wants to feel necessary. At the same time, the 90s aesthetic doesn’t give a lot to this movie.
Compared to earlier eras, where the style is so obviously different, setting a film in the 90s, which, more or less, doesn’t have that much of a changing look from the present, ends up making the setting feel like more of an excuse for how to work around cell phones and other tools that would move this case along a lot faster. Again, work is work, but there’s nothing particularly innovative about this method of going old fashion, and the film has little else of interest going on to make it more compelling, which includes a choice to hold back details concerning Washington’s past.
There’s also the direction this film takes in its final stretch. While I do not bemoan the lack of something as cliched as a race against time to find a final victim before it’s too late, there is a lack of urgency in the cops’ efforts to catch either Albert or whoever the killer may be. The film opts for a different sort of choice to build things to a head, which is admirable but is staged in such a way where there’s no real impact. There are interesting things to say about the characters, though that intrigue lasts about as long as this sentence.
As a well-cast detective story, there’s only so much good The Little Things manages to generate. The actors do their job, but even with some grisly imagery, the dark tone never really matches up to a stronger story conveying the real dread of the situation. By default, Washington guides us through the film in a way for us to believe more is going to happen, so by that notion, it held my interest throughout. However, for all the little things this film supplied, it didn’t add up to a whole lot.