Director: John Lee Hancock | Screenwriter: John Lee Hancock | Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales | Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures | Running Time: 127 min. | MPAA Rating: R
There’s a scene in this retro crime thriller where Denzel Washington swipes the trash of a suspect in a murder case. He sorts through the trash not looking for some specific clue but teethmarks on a pizza. Why? He argues it’s the little things that can bring about a resolve. But in trying to push for a slow-burn drama, The Little Things is a film that spends far too much time focusing on the little elements that don’t hold much water for the somber brooding implied.
Taking place in the 1990s, Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, an aged Deputy Sheriff in Kern County. Haunted by the past of deadly mistakes on the job, he finds himself once more involved with a serial killer case. He’ll find himself teaming up with LASD Detective, Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek. With a generational divide, one might think there’d be a buddy cop angle to how these two clash in their police work. Washington is capable of great intimidation and Malek has this quiet disdain to him that could make for good chemistry. Sadly, they remain firmly tight-lipped in their anxiety over such a case, keeping everything locked up tight to never show too much. Their debate over detective work early on at a crime scene is so short and quiet you could blink and miss it. They also kinda sorta have a bit of a spat over radio stations and how stakeout can make them tired, the most heated of those arguments coming off more like a dry read of a Dragnet episode.
The primary suspect is Albert Sparma, an odd and bearded fellow played by a subdued Jared Leto. Leto plays this role up in the manner of a wide-eyed criminal who seems intrigued and amused by the pursuing detectives. He doesn’t appear to have some grand plan in mind as he doesn’t look as though there’s a whole lot more going through his head. In what I suppose is part of the uniqueness of the character, he doesn’t seem to have an escape plan, choosing to remain in plain sight. Even when he is brought in for questioning, he seems to only rock the boat just enough to watch Washington explode in his one and only intense moment of interrogation. Why must everyone feel so distant in this story?
Padding itself out for the long haul, there’s a lot of quiet and lingering moments within the film that sadly don’t emit that sensation of a moody thriller. Scenes where Deke is haunted by the past and Jim finds himself a mental mess at home don’t exactly carry a punch. Keeping with the film’s themes, there’s a lot of little things that don’t make this work. The blank expressions, the lacking cinematography, and the far-too whimsical score all contribute to making the scene feel more like slogs than scenic routes, making the whole film seem so much more boring than it should.
The Little Things has some mini-twists towards the end of the picture that may have resonated better if they didn’t feel inexplicable in the film’s moseying from crime scene A to crime scene B. This is way too procedural a story for such strong talents that deserve either a better script or better editing to make this film more than just another dreary retread of a crime thriller. It’s even stranger that this film had to take place in the 1990s and doesn’t seem to evoke anything of the era, politically or materially. It could be set in the 2000s for how dead everything is in this film with characters that hardly seem to play off each other, let alone the environment they occupy.