The Little Things
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Denzel Washington is a great actor who has given wonderful performances in really good movies. He is also the kind of actor who can make a lesser movie better, just by being in it. In the last decade or so, that has been the situation for him more often than not. It is the situation once again in his latest, the psychological detective thriller The Little Things (now streaming on HBO Max). The story of a disgraced cop dealing with his demons as he returns to the case that broke him, it is the type of thing we have all seen many times before from this genre. The difference this time is that it is much slower and struggles to build mood.
It seems to have something to say about the pain of feeling like you have let down those you have sworn to help (in this instance, the victims of a possible serial killer) and how that could destroy someone from the inside. But that is squandered by a final act that, while fine in theory, is executed clumsily and without any urgency. The result sees good acting and intriguing themes done in by weak plotting and the screenplay’s inability to get its points across effectively.
Washington is Joe Deacon, a stud detective, who was run out of LA five years ago and now works as a sheriff’s deputy. Brought back to his old precinct on an errand, he ends up teaming with a new genius detective on a case with alarming parallels to the one that ruined his career.
Considering that the identity of the killer is never in doubt, The Little Things isn’t so much concerned with the investigation as it is with what the uncertainty, the lack of closure, the failure to get solid evidence on the guy they know in their gut is guilty, does to the psyche of Deacon and his ally, Jim Baxter. Baxter’s superiors warned him about Deacon, but he senses a kindred spirit, and a brilliant mind, so he involves him in the case anyway.
Baxter is initially played by Rami Malek with a bunch of weird affectations. Strangely, after his first few scenes, those affectations disappear and he becomes another cop obsessed with trying to catch a killer. I would complain about his sudden change in behavior, but his early line readings were very distracting. That said, it is hardly the only odd little thing in The Little Things. There is also the decision to make a point of it being set in 1990, despite there being no apparent reason for it to take place in any specific year. Or the moment near the beginning where an old friend asks Deacon to stick around a crime scene so they can talk and then we never see that conversation. This stuff, plus the glacial pace, made it difficult for the movie to maintain tension.
The story is mostly flat, with a promising character arc that writer/director/producer John Lee Hancock can’t quite figure out how to conclude in a satisfying way. Most of what actually works here is due to Washington. He could play this role in his sleep: a man haunted by his past who may be making things worse by revisiting his biggest defeat in the present. Washington is quiet, intense and suggests more in one quick close-up than some actors do in entire soliloquys. He makes shots where he is studying a crime scene, tailing a suspect or listening in on an interrogation more about the effect it is having on Deacon. He clearly approached it like a drama focusing on the damage these murders have on the men solving them. His costars approached it like a serial killer thriller. The production as a whole is suffering from an identity crisis.
Malek’s performance is stuck somewhere in the middle right along with it. He is good when we are allowed to see the toll all of this is taking on him. Though there are long stretches where he is closer to “the detective on the case” than he is to “younger man following in the footsteps of someone who might be dangerous to emulate.” The former feels like a retread of Seven, as opposed to the deep character study Washington is doing.
Jared Leto, as disturbing Albert Sparma, absolutely belongs to the Seven part of the movie. He is the genre staple of the obvious suspect who toys with the cops, taunting them with their own suspicions. When he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, Leto’s blank stare and cold smile begin to create a chilling antagonist. Yet, when he gets speeches, his overacting takes away from Washington’s far more realistic style. Leto’s Sparma is “acting” creepy instead of just “being” creepy. That difference causes The Little Things to wander from potentially compelling character study to derivative thriller. Unfortunately, the latter of those two options wins out.
2½ out of 5
Denzel Washington as Joe Deacon
Rami Malek as Jim Baxter
Jared Leto as Albert Sparma
Written and Directed by John Lee Hancock