The Little Things (dir. John Lee Hancock): Film review

The little things

I have a feeling that The Little Things is going to be a bit of a critical punching bag for the next few weeks, and although I’m about to expound upon why, I want to make it very clear that despite all of its problems, I very much enjoyed the film. Despite the goofy plot, the mixed tonal bag, and a comically miscast Raimi Malek; Despite the fact that the cops in this movie don’t behave the way that cops do, or that Denzel Washington is so much better than the material that he’s simultaneously elevating it and sleepwalking through it, even as he chews down all of the scenery; Despite the fact that characters behave illogically in egregious ways, and that the poorly matched score sounds so much like the opening bars to Santa Fe from Newsies that I half expected Jared Leto to strip off his silly fake belly, trade his affected gait for some sweet dance moves, and then bust out into song. 

Despite all of this cinematic tomfoolery, I was still utterly entranced by The Little Things. Like an adolescent sneaking downstairs to watch grown-up movies on HBO at 2 AM, I couldn’t turn away from the screen, my childhood delights of rebellious behavior now replaced with basking in how similar this movie feels to the filmic offerings I caught back when I wasn’t yet supposed to. A cursory google search tells me that the script for The Little Things, an original by John Lee Hancock, who also directed, was penned decades ago, predating things like Se7en or Fallen. While I struggle to imagine how this film may have looked or felt had it been made closer to its inception, I think that one of its greatest strengths as it currently stands is the way it has become a period piece of the very early 1990s.

What I mean to say is that much like Seinfeld, a lot of the conflict which occurs could have been avoided had any one character gained access to a cell phone. But also like Seinfeld, I wasn’t rooting for someone to invent one. Cuz really, where’s the fun in that?

The title of The Little at Things is in reference to a piece of advice that former detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) gives to young upstart Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) as they join forces to hunt a serial killer. “It’s the little things that rip you apart. It’s the little things that get you caught.” You see, it’s not the big details that sink a killer, but rather the little things he or she may not have considered before committing the crime. Be it a stray hair, a fudged work schedule, or a seemingly unrelated testimony from an unknowing witness, few crimes leave no trace at all — you just have to know where to look to find the clues. Deacon’s wisdom comes from his past as a homicide detective. While I can’t get spoilery as to why he’s now working for the sheriff’s office, and why his former coworkers have a guarded reverence for him, it’s enough for Baxter to invite Deacon along to help him investigate. Could this new string of murders be connected to a case from Deacon’s past?

My guess is yes, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie here. 

Funnily enough, it’s the little things that Hancock has not given consideration to in his film. The big details are there: we’ve got a killer, a suspect, and a duo of cops with very different backgrounds. The bureaucracy of law enforcement is in play, as well as the politics of moving up in the crime-fighting ranks. Heck, even a few cast members of The Wire show up (Michael Hyatt and Chris Bauer). All of the pieces required to make a basic cop thriller are there, but there are very few details to make it stand out from a sea of similar films. What makes this killer more than just “the bad guy?” I can’t tell. What makes this particular case compelling enough to merit a movie? I don’t know. Sure, we are told that bureaucratic concerns of the homicide unit can hobble progress on a case, but how? Yeah, I know that being a murder detective can be hard on family life, but only because decades of crime media have told me such things. Some details in all of these departments would really help make this compelling beyond “that’s just how it goes.” 

The lack of these details rob the film of color, and it strands the characters from any sort of workable depth. Deacon becomes “Denzel Cop.” Baxter becomes “Rami Malek in a suit.” Their suspect, Albert Sparma becomes “Jared Leto, only more likable.” We know what role these characters play, and we know the actors who pay them, but we don’t know who these people are. And when each and every one of them makes powerfully illogical and dangerous decisions, there’s no character work laid down to motivate them to do so. I don’t mind when characters act stupidly (I’ve met humans before, it’s sort of our thing), but I do mind when a story regularly asserts how smart certain characters are and then fails to back it up, oftentimes hiding dumb decisions behind more empty assertions of intellect. As a writer, I was able to mentally “write around” just about every instance of a character behaving like a moron with very little effort. An hour of rewrites could have patched up a lot this script, but apparently decades of simmering could not.

Yet somehow, beyond all logic, I had a total blast with The Little Things. It really does feel like a thriller from my youth. As miscast as Rami Malek is, it’s awesome to watch him, Denzel, and Leto, all Oscar winners, play off one another, and to do so with the enthusiasm of performers who haven’t yet received such acclaim, and who wear their creative hunger on their sleeves. It’s exciting to get wrapped up in a mystery, and to do so in the shell of a police procedural. I love seeing Los Angeles on film, and it looks fantastic here. And as much as I’ve been making fun of the script, specifically its truly bizarre third act, it sticks the landing really well. The morally ambiguous place where The Little Things ends up is dark and delicious, and is exactly the type of complicated thematic endpoint that American audiences could use more of. It’s not cut and dry, but if you look at the details — ya know, the little things — it’s a grand thematic success. 

Released in the United States on January 29, 2021.

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