In a genre where advancements in technology have alleviated many of the difficulties in getting answers to tough questions in criminal cases such progress has also forced writers to be doubly creative in their efforts to outwit the viewer when it comes to a good mystery and/or crime thriller. This may not wholly be the reason writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) turned to his twenty-eight year-old script for a film set some thirty years ago when looking for his next project, but as the film unfolds it begins to feel like one of the only reasons to justify re-visiting this story. It’s not that The Little Things is a bad movie. In fact, it’s quite an interesting one in terms of objective, but what it means to do and how successful it is at executing said intent are two entirely different things. There is real promise, real ambition in Hancock’s “too smart for its own good” approach to the screenplay that sees the filmmaker playing with the conventions of the B-movie crime drama and hoping to bring a real insight into the vastness of the world detectives inhabit rather than a single, insulated tale of good cops chasing down promising leads that inevitably lead to a successful capture. It wants to be about the lasting effects these cases have on detectives, the torture being unsuccessful can cause, but the idea becomes overshadowed by a million others as Hancock tries to convey his rather straightforward story of struggle through an overly complex guise; layers are needed sure, but to emphasize the point - not cloak it completely. Furthermore, this introspection as it were is executed in such plodding fashion that by the time interesting aspects concerning the core case do begin to introduce themselves the viewer is hardly invested in what’s happening...much less anticipating who might be the big bad wolf hiding under the covers. The Little Things is a film desperate to dissect obsession, guilt, and the aforementioned torture spurned by as much. It means to tackle these generationally as the symptoms go hand in hand no matter the changing times: when it's your responsibility to prevent people from becoming victims, from becoming less than what their shells present what is it that can heal your soul and your self-esteem should you fail? These are interesting questions albeit ones that have naturally been explored before in plenty of genre flicks from the time in which this is set, but again - despite the good intent - the meaning can't help but get lost in the sluggish translation of the narrative. The Little Things is never not intriguing, this much is true, but given the depths it seeks to explore it shouldn't be nearly as forgettable as it is.  

Denzel Washington as Joe "Deke" Deacon in Warner Bros. Pictures' psychological thriller The Little Things.
Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson.

Though much of what begins as inspired in The Little Things eventually turns into something maddening, none of this should have been surprising given the use of the B-52's song, "Roam" in the opening three minutes of the film. In a scene eerily similar to that of David Fincher's Zodiac (though Se7en is the Fincher film drawing more comparisons due to the time period) we are introduced to a young, innocent girl driving freely down the highway of the California desert in 1990 and rocking out to that 1989 hit. It's initially charming, placing us directly into the setting and reminding us what it was like to genuinely be disconnected from everything else - the FM signal your only link to mankind. Hancock quickly capitalizes on this frightening realization as a set of bright headlights come up quickly behind the only character we've been introduced to thus far. As the audience watches all of this play out though, the hook of that B-52's song continues to repeat itself again and again to the point of distraction which quickly evolves into irritation, and ultimately into a strong distaste. As stated, this goes on for nearly three full minutes until our heroine darts from her car in hopes of escaping her mysterious pursuer. Though not immediately recognizable, the grating quality of this choice is emblematic of the film as a whole as each act begins with such promise only to have either the hammering home of a certain theme, the compounding of one too many themes, or the general lack of any real propulsion drive the audience to a point of wondering how something seemingly so good on paper brought us to somewhere so baffling and tedious in reality. A nineties-set crime drama starring three Oscar-winning actors should be the furthest thing from either boring or uninteresting, but this is where we find ourselves some two plus hours after that B-52's single first blares from the soundtrack and into our ears; everything out on the table, scattered and disjointed, a fascinating array of facets, but none of it culminating in anything more than countless "what if" and "what could have been" scenarios. 

Speaking of Oscar winners, the story deals in Denzel Washington's deputy sheriff Joe Deacon who works in Kern County a la Bakersfield, located near the southern end of the Central Valley in California. Soon after being introduced to Deacon he is sent down to Los Angeles where it's divulged that Deacon was once a well-renowned detective with the LA Sheriff's Department, but clearly departed on what were not the best of terms. What happened exactly? There's no telling as Deacon's past is obviously a narrative strand to be teased out over the remainder of the film for the purposes of intrigue and developing his character arc. It is upon arriving in LA that Deacon is introduced to the new wunderkind detective on the block, Jim Baxter (a completely miscast Rami Malek), who is working a serial killer case similar to one Deacon worked back in the day. Contrary to the initial positioning of the characters, Baxter and Deacon quickly become friends - or at least more than acquaintances - leading Baxter to ask Deacon for his assistance in solving the case despite the Captain's orders. The early scenes of Washington and Malek investigating crime scenes cover the familiar ground of women having been abused, though not sexually, despite their ending up naked and dead on the floor of their apartments. It all feels fairly rote with the hope being that once the duo hits on a certain clue or makes a certain connection that the energy of it all will begin to pick up and carry us through to what makes doing a job such as this exhilarating and worth the disappointment and heartache that is also sure to come along with it. Again, as with that previously mentioned opening scene, Hancock upends the audience's expectation while failing to build on that subversion in any interesting way. While this can be forgiven more easily in the prologue given it simply informs the audience this movie might not line up exactly with what it was expected it to be, but when it comes to introducing Jared Leto's character, Albert Sparma, some forty minutes into the movie there is a need for him to be more than just a diversion, but a diversion with purpose. Hancock certainly seems to believe there is a purpose in the role Sparma plays in relation to Baxter and Deacon, but the connection doesn't present a strong enough case through which to justify its choices; the execution can't match the ambition.

Malek and Washington's characters are so desperate to draw a conclusion to this case and to feel they've succeeded in putting away the bad guy that it almost doesn't matter if it's the right person or not. Someone needs to carry the weight and they've done it long enough. Baxter reaches and Deacon has far surpassed the point of what the evidence is telling them as both find their way firmly to the realm of believing their instincts over everything else. "The past becomes the future, becomes the past," Washington's Deacon mutters over and over again throughout the film as it is this crazed obsession not with justice, but more with reconciling his own guilt for what happened in the past that drives him. In order to explore what Hancock is attempting it's impossible to completely avoid spoilers, so fair warning. First and foremost, it bears noting that Leto's character does largely function as a misdirect. It's a bit of reverse psychology as far as the marketing is concerned given one doesn't expect a studio to throw the answer to the "whodunit" front and center on the poster, but by placing a greasy, straggly-haired, and very pale Leto on said poster it's not hard to deduce what character he's playing. That said, while Washington is more or less going through the motions here as a variation on the cops he's portrayed in the past who grey the lines between good and evil it is legitimately confusing as to what Malek is trying to do with his role. Malek easily has the greatest distance to travel over the course of the film with Baxter going from the up and coming detective with the credentialed education, the perfect family, and a set of religious beliefs that align with the Captains to a man that mirrors his new mentor. By the end of the film, Baxter has lived out the arc Deacon experienced prior to being re-assigned to Kern County. Baxter now destined to forever deal with an immeasurable amount of guilt for the mistake he can't help but to justify just as we learn Deacon has had to cope with. And it's not that Malek doesn't pull off the arc or that he simply isn't right for the role, but more he's just not very convincing in it. The hotshot rookie is a role tailor made for someone cut from the same cloth as a Henry Golding or Charlie Hunnam - someone that can convincingly command a room, but also go to as dark a place as this role calls for. With Malek, Baxter seems to have been born and bred in a dark place; aspects of his performance making it seem as if the film might be suggesting he has more to do with the serial killer he's hunting than Sparma.         

Left to right: Jared Leto as Albert Sparma and Rami Malek as Jim Baxter in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Little Things.
Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Nicola Goode.

It is in Sparma that we have the film's hook though, the piece of the puzzle that finally brings the audience into the fold in a way that the narrative direction might seem to begin to fulfill its promise. Yes, Leto is notorious for being an unbearable method actor that takes things too far and much of the time goes so big that he misses "the little things" or nuances that make a character not only work, but recognizable. Authenticity is in the details, as they say, but fortunately for Leto Sparma isn't intended to be the most relatable subject in the film. As a matter of fact, Sparma is meant to fit the bill of the suspect Baxter and Deacon are looking for to such a specific degree that Hancock wants the viewer to go back and forth on whether or not this is the guy for nearly the entirety of the runtime. For every piece of evidence that would seem to pin Sparma as the prime suspect there is a rebuttal that is worth considering that would exclude him completely. To the point of Leto's performance though, Sparma is a self-proclaimed "crime buff" and pervert, a weirdo through and through by the definition set through societal norms, but does that really make him a murderer or does that simply make him an easy target for the police? Just because someone is odd and admittedly creepy doesn't make them a bad person and just because they appear guilty doesn't make them guilty, it just makes them a victim themself. Granted, Sparma isn't completely innocent as it is through the character's taunting of his own police pursuers that Leto is able to allow Sparma to shine. While the knowledge he's accrued from being a "crime buff" certainly helps in his quick-witted responses during an interrogation what really makes the character are the offhand comments that, in one way or another, all have to deal with food. "Holy guacamole" may be my favorite line reading in the entire film though, "That the place with potato skins?" is a close second given the editing around it. Although, "Oh poop. I think I made a boo boo" is definitely a strong contender as well. If it's the little things that get you caught, it's mastering those little things that help you win and while Leto doesn't ever let up on letting the audience know just how hard he's acting he wins the film by default simply by being the most interesting and strangely enough - the most sympathetic character - of the whole piece. 

Hancock is a more than competent and skilled filmmaker who has obviously made strong if not fairly by-the-numbers films for two decades now, beginning his career with what might be his best film in The Rookie. In contrast, The Little Things is a very different kind of film - in both make and model - than that Disney sports drama, but while Hancock, the writer, doesn't make the case for his thesis as well as he could have Hancock, the director, has a lot of ideas that help his film rise above being little more than a cable crime procedural condensed into two hours. Always a challenge given the premise is low hanging fruit for ongoing television series', Hancock's The Little Things as shot by frequent collaborator John Schwartzman relishes in the dark and the shadows as if paying homage to the black and white films of the noir heyday in the 1940s and 50s. It would be surprising to learn if Schwartzman used anything other than the lighting provided in camera for many of the scenes as much of the movie takes place in the dead of night with silhouettes often illuminated only by the plundering flashlight of detective Deacon. Hancock's tone matches the look of his film, the cynical attitudes of his leads, and the perverted motivations of his serial killer all to great effect with Thomas Newman's score being the real highlight of the film as a whole. The score is able to emphasize the tonal direction the film desires to go while also helping to reinforce the period setting. On the other side of the coin, the soundtrack has a penchant for fifties and sixties music that serves to alleviate Deacon of his failed present and transport him back to a more innocent time. This brings about the aching sense of regret in the characters that transcends the failed construction from what was clearly a compelling character study around cops and what they're haunted by which in turns only makes it all the more regrettable this isn't a better movie overall.    

"Do you believe in God, Joe?" 

"When I see a sunrise or thunderstorm or dew on the ground, yes I think there's a God. When I see all this I think he's long past giving a shit."

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