There is a scene early in the film where Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) are discussing an investigation, and Joe says it is all about the little things. The little details one may find. It is a statement that gives the impression that there is something exciting to be revealed if one looks hard enough. Sadly, when it comes to The Little Things, that discovery turns out to be how disappointing this movie is.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things is a neo-noir crime thriller set in the ‘90s. Washington plays a deputy who one day crosses paths with Malek’s detective character; the two clash upon meeting each other, but as a string of murders takes over Los Angeles, they end up joining forces. Through the events that take place, there also comes some intrigue surrounding Washington’s Joe Deacon. There’s something mysterious to him; he has a haunted past and he is driven to find this killer.
The Little Things teases a gripping serial killer story with a touch of character study, yet turns out to be a jumbled mess. It makes some effort to explore heavy themes, but primarily suffers under the weight of its sluggish story and weak characters.
To be fair, the film starts on an intense note. A woman is driving down a road, singing along to music and having a good time. Suddenly, a car speeds up behind her, riding way too close to her bumper. The car goes faster and rides alongside her, only to go off ahead. Just as she thinks she’s alone, the car stops in the distance and waits for her. This cat and mouse chase is incredibly anxious and a solid means of establishing the unhinged nature of the film’s killer. After that, the film’s quality wavers a whole lot.
As the audience spends more time with Joe, they come to discover details about his past and how said past relates to this new case. He proves himself to be a competent detective, searching out locations and clues surrounding the serial killer. Washington’s performance is okay for the most part – it just doesn’t help when it comes to his awkward moments of philosophical dialogue. The blame isn’t on Washington here, as one can tell he’s trying with the script he’s given. There are a couple scenes where Joe and Jimmy have brief existential conversations, but each feel vague. What little context they do provide to the story comes off a bit cheesy, which is not ideal when attempting to sell a serious conversation. It’s like the movie is trying to capture the vibe of True Detective season one, but is only willing to lightly tread thoughtful introspection.
When it comes to Malek, this has to be one of his weakest performances yet. There’s a scene later in the film when he shows a semblance of emotion, and it’s comical. It’s unexpected since he plays the majority of the movie so straight faced. It is obvious from the dialogue that Jimmy wants to catch the killer, but when he’s saying it, there’s little to no feeling. In making up for Malek’s acting, Jared Leto plays a great creep in Albert Sparma. When one thing leads to another, Sparma becomes the lead suspect in Joe and Jimmy’s investigation. Leto plays the character in a truly goofy fashion, constantly trolling the protagonists. However, once one is past those comedic moments, Albert proves to be one of the weirdest, most disappointing directions the film takes.
Along with these character issues, there are also odd efforts to insert emotional moments that aren’t fleshed out. At one point, it is mentioned how Joe and his wife split; some time after, he goes to see her and see how she’s doing. That’s it. There isn’t any new context added. One can see that Jimmy’s wife is upset with how much he is working, but besides a couple upset looks she gives him, her frustration doesn’t lead anywhere. Nothing is ever discussed between them, no in-depth look into their relationship, there’s nothing more to read into. The characters also feel too stationary; there is never a sense that they have really figured something out or are in any real danger. And that speaks to another major issue throughout the film.
Whereas other noir-crime narratives provide a consistent flow of events, revelations, and action, The Little Things is a slow progression of stuff just sort of happening. There are a couple surprises there and then that bring much-needed flavor to the film, but they are far and few between. Not much happens to push Jimmy and Joe. There will be stretches of time where some talking takes place, then some minor investigating, more talking – then something finally happens that elevates the movie’s tension. For the viewer, the experience becomes a waiting game for a drastic element to be introduced that Joe and Jimmy can react to. Both protagonists spend so much time talking about clues, and yet, they are rarely led anywhere new. For good chunks, the film seems to be a story about two guys trying to solve a case, instead of actually solving it.
Outside of the couple crime scenes that are shown, a lot of the movie takes place in cars or another place the guys decide to meet up. For a movie involving a serial killer, there’s a severe lack of suspense. On the flipside, while not handled in the strongest of manners, there are some means to go a little deeper with Joe. These mental close ups don’t make for a large improvement compared to all the film’s flaws, but do allow an opportunity for the central themes to briefly shine. Without going into spoilers, the ending is a big aspect that provides something of significance to reflect upon thematically. That said, it also comes across like a bloated effort to surprise and throw a quasi-twist in. The way said ending plays out is also odd with what tone it wants to present to the audience. What could have been a unique, thought-provoking ending falls flat on its face in delivery.
Ultimately, The Little Things meanders around the idea of catching the killer, and meanders around heavy talks of morality and life. Washington’s acting and the mystique surrounding his character, while somewhat engaging, cannot entirely save this movie. At one point in the film, a chief complains to Jimmy that after so much time, they still have no leads on who the killer might be. For all their work, there has been no real progress. The scene perfectly sums up the overall vibe throughout The Little Things. It’s a film that wants to present interesting themes and characters, yet tarnishes such attempts through its brutally sluggish and muddled narrative.
The Little Things is now streaming on HBO Max at no additional cost.