3 out of 5 stars

On the surface, there’s much to like about The Little Things, not least its solid cast, and the script’s an original story by writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks). All the ingredients are there for what should be a slam dunk crime thriller. But that’s what makes it all the more confounding, as The Little Things is horribly dull and doesn’t live up to its promise. It’s a forgettable, though not terrible, take on the cop versus serial killer sub-genre.

It’s also set in the year 1990, for no apparent reason other than making audiences recall better crime movies from that decade, like Seven (1995). Although Hancock’s first draft was written way back in 1993 for Steven Spielberg to make, before he passed over its dark tone and it proceeded to bounce around development hell for almost three decades.

Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a washed-up, former LAPD homicide detective now spending the twilight of his professional career as a police deputy in a small California community miles from the City of Angels. He’s brought back to the big city on a simple errand to retrieve a lab sample from a suspect the cops have in custody, and who might be connected to a crime in Deacon’s jurisdiction. His arrival back in town is met with sideways glances and sharp remarks, letting us know there’s bad blood between Deacon and his former colleagues. The details of that history and what ran him out of town aren’t revealed until late in the third act, and don’t directly connect to the story’s primary mystery. 

The LAPD’s investigating a string of murders involving young women with a clear pattern, but they have no suspects. A young and ambitious detective, Sgt. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), is heading up the investigation, and it’s clear he’s is over his head and at risk of losing his case to the FBI. A salty mix of ego and determination drive Baxter to the tireless work of combing through multiple crime scenes and looking for any thread that might lead to the killer. 

Deacon gets embroiled in the case when Baxter asks him to tag along and “teach me a thing or two”, even against the warnings of his fellow officers. Everyone else treats Deacon like a leper and there are several scenes where Deacon’s obsessive and self-destructive tendencies are in full display. None of this bothers Baxter, who forms a partnership with Deacon almost in spite of the warnings. Malek plays him like a spoiled kid at times, who’s more than willing to rebel against his overprotective parents. 

The Little Things moves along at leisurely pace until the duo are able to focus in on one main suspect : a creepy repair guy by the name of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who seems to be a textbook serial killer type if you’ve ever seen Criminal Minds or Mindhunter. Sparma’s a socially awkward sexual pervert with an unhealthy obsession for violent crime, but is he a murderer? 

Nobody can argue the three lead actors don’t earn every penny of their paychecks. Each deliver solid performances, with the Golden Globe-nominated Leto standing out from the pack. What the film lacks in substance it makes up for with performances squeezing ever ounce of drama out of the material. Washington and Malek are an odd pairing that works better on paper than in action, however, as they don’t seem to have any chemistry together. 

There’s a recurring musical soundtrack that Deacon favours and plays as a delightfully odd counterpoint to the film’s overall dour tone. He’s a haunted man with ghosts he can’t shake, and while there’s no great twist to the mystery, the film should have spent more time with him and addressing this aspect of his character. With all due respect to Malek, having Washington’s character solve the case singlehanded would have been preferable.

In the end, John Lee Hancock tries to weave a grim tapestry with a film asking moral questions about the lengths cops will go to on order to catch a killer. Maybe the intention was for The Little Things to be a deeper film challenging audiences to consider these questions, rather than just solve a generic serial killer case. The climax also left me unsatisfied thanks to too few answers. This could have been a great film, but it’s the little things that tripped it up.

USA | 2021 | 128 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: John Lee Hancock.
starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales & Glenn Morshower.