“It’s the little things that get you caught…”
…We don’t often think about the little things in our lives. There’s enough to worry about, but it’s those little things that decide your fate every single day, in everything from how long we brush our teeth to the stranger we decide to let our guard down around, if only for a moment.
It’s the little things that also determine the difference between a great film and one that leaves you frustrated, and in the case of new crime drama The Little Things, there are a lot of little things that keep it from crossing the line from “fine” to “great”.
Written/directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), The Little Things is set in 1990 and follows obsessive cop Deke (Denzel Washington), torn from his quiet, small-town life and thrust into a case in Los Angeles, where a woman has been found murdered. While revisiting his old precinct, Deke catches the eye of up and coming detective Jimmy (Rami Malek), who invites him to tag along on the case while he’s in town. Deke is forced to confront his past when the case feels familiar to one that destroyed his life years ago and even gave him a heart attack, and it isn’t long before Deke finds the obsession over finding the killer creeping back in, once again threatening to destroy him, and Jimmy.
The Little Things is a well-executed though standard crime procedural drama in every way. Awash in a rotten, gangrene color scheme of yellows and greens that feels reminiscent of Fincher’s Se7en, Hancock drags us through the typical, lonely gloom of detective life. Hardly a scene goes by that isn’t enveloped by brooding darkness, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s melancholic score. Los Angeles isn’t depicted as the bustling, glamorous city we sometimes think of it as, but instead exposes the seedy underbelly, taking us through streets littered with hookers and drug dealers, decrepit hotels, all of it expressing a strange loneliness in a city that should feel anything but.
Hancock pulls us down into the dirt with Deke as we follow him to familiar settings. A bloody crime scene that reveals the grim nature of the film. A morgue, where Denzel hangs out with his old spark, Marsha (Judith Scott). Watching The Little Things is like putting together a puzzle you’ve done before, the pieces dirty and fading, a slow trek through something we know all too well.
We’ve often seen the cop that can’t quit until they find the killer. There are countless examples of that cop left beaten, battered and godless (Deke makes the same disgusted face at the giant cross on the 405 that I do). But in the case of both Deke and Jimmy, two sides of the same coin, the job goes beyond obsession; it’s their one and only purpose, everything else be damned. “They’re your lifelong responsibility…you own them,” says Deke to Jimmy about the victims they encounter. These are two men who don’t just need to solve the crime. They’re haunted by it, to a point where they are willing to do anything to solve it. The Little Things leans harder into that theme than I think I’ve ever seen, with an intriguing honesty.
See, obsession is a funny thing. It scrambles your brain. Doesn’t let you think clearly. And in Deke’s case, it’s left him desperate to escape the literal ghosts of the past that haunt him. He doesn’t want to catch the killer. He must catch the killer. The Little Things is less of a murder mystery, and more an introspective look at the devastation of the work. The hunt for the killer becomes more of a backdrop to Deke’s hunt for his own sanity.
As usual, Denzel carries the film with a grounded performance rapt with pain. He’s an actor that can lift even the weakest script to respectability, and he does so once again here, adding an engaging allure that otherwise might not exist. Jared Leto as suspect Albert is the real showstopper though, delivering a calm, calculated, eerie as all hell performance that reaches into your soul and rubs ice on it.
The problem with The Little Things is that it takes the audience on a long, unsatisfying journey made longer by a lack of suspense. Anyone expecting Zodiac levels of tension throughout will leave disappointed—though some moments come close—but the sort of “aha” revelations or riveting chases of suspects are near devoid from the film…unless you count tailing someone in stop and go traffic as riveting.
I don’t, by the way.
The Little Things is also a film that could not possibly be coming at a worse time. In an environment where anger over police brutality is at an all-time high, it probably won’t sit well with some that Hancock’s film asks for a great deal of sympathy for cops committing more than questionable actions in an effort to catch a killer, regardless of their intent. It’s an old trope that I suspect audiences are tired of. Fewer and fewer of us want to root for bad cops, no matter if their heart is in the right place.
The Little Things is an atmospheric, well made and disturbing movie carried by a cast that sells the pain of a life solving crime, but falls a few little pieces short of putting together an engaging puzzle. Worth the watch for those who enjoy better Denzel crime films such as Along Came a Spider, just don’t hold your breath waiting for anything more than your average procedural.
The Little Things arrives in theaters and on HBO Max January 29th.
By Matt Konopka