Since stocks have entered into the forefront of common discussion as of late, allow me to use contextually inaccurate terminology to describe “The Little Things.” I bet big on its downfall and shorted its stock before it even hits HBO Max, and this is one time I wish my position didn’t pay dividends. But with no Reddit Traders to short squeeze it back to life, “The Little Things” does very little to stake its claim in already overcrowded genre. Though star studded and competently directed, it can’t quite overcome its shortcomings, inevitably feeling outdated and more like a copycat version of better crime thrillers.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (who also wrote “Snow White and The Huntsman” and “The Blindside“) “The Little Things” takes place in October of 1990. John Deacon- known as Dekes- (played by Denzel Washington) is a deputy in Kern county who is called back to LA to collect evidence for a case. Having left under mysterious circumstances, he encounters Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) the new homicide detective who essentially replaced him as he’s investigating a string of grisly murders. Through a series of events, the two begin working together to track the killer before the FBI takes over. Dekes is haunted by his past while Jimmy is concerned about the future, and the closer they get to solving the crime the harder things may get for both of them.
Let’s go ahead and get the good out of the way first, since there’s unfortunately less of it. “The Little Things” has a lot of potential to be great, especially in the first act. The slow burn, noir style of cinematography and haunting score create a perfect simmering mystery that festers with anticipation. Hancock is a capable writer and director, and for the most part is willing to take his time grappling with the dichotomy of perspectives from our leads as the crimes unfold around them. There’s is always the question of why Denzel would even agree to something like “The Little Things,” as it ostensibly typecasts him as yet another older, wiser detective, but Washington is just so damn good at it he could do the role in his sleep and still be the best of them.
And that’s really it for the good, I’m afraid. The longer the “The Little Things” goes on, the more and more it starts to unravel into something uninteresting and bland. By the second act, you can’t help but continually compare it better crime thrillers like “Se7en,” right down to the strange brew pairing of old cop vs new cop. You could quite literally replace both Denzel and Malek with Freeman and Pitt and the film would function exactly the same despite their acting styles being wildly different. It’s as if this is David Fincher fan fiction- attempting to capture the nuances that makes his crime thriller catalog so engaging but missing all the things that make them so good in the first place.
While Washington feels right at home in his respective role, Malek does not. I can’t tell if I just don’t like him as an actor or I simply don’t like him for this role, but either way he falls way short of powerhouse counter part. Malek is just a bit too naturally quirky and offbeat to be an every and family man detective with a chip on his shoulder to prove something. I hate to keep comparing “The Little Things” to the same movie, but Pitt’s David Mills has a charm and charisma that balances out his volatile temperament on the job. Malek does not, even going as far as to come off goofy and aloof rather than steadfast and clever. As the film begins to fall apart on paper, this becomes more and more noticeable to the point of distraction.
And there’s Jared Leto as Albert Sparma, a strange man who becomes the detectives prime suspect. Leto feels like he was filming a completely different project, and showed up here unwilling to break character, so they filmed around him. He may as well wear a sign that says “Hi, I’m creepy serial killer suspect number 1 and I know it.” Where as Malek becomes increasingly distracting, Leto is downright misplaced from the get go. He chews through scenery in the pejorative sense, delivering every line like a bad stage actor overdramatizing every act of perceived villainy or oddity. It simply doesn’t work here, and the film suffers all the more for it.
Its also edited together in a bizarre way. The first act is a strong linear set up that builds the world, sets the pieces and gets the crime that link them in motion seamlessly. But it doesn’t hold to this for very long, and starts to become narratively unfocused and less and less interesting. The more “Se7en” it tries to be the less enjoyable the film becomes. The film splices flashbacks from Dekes’ homicide investigations with current crimes so often it starts to blur together in the worst of ways.
“The Little Things” wants us to feel the stress of the case, but spends so little time on the crimes that are being investigated we are simply forced to accept it because the story calls for it. There is one crime scene investigation that gives us insight into both Malek and Washington’s methods of detective work and then it’s all but abandoned by about the 30 minute mark. I’m not saying that in order to be a crime thriller we need an overabundance of grisly crime scenes, but you also have to give the viewers something to be haunted by if you’re trying sell us the idea that our protagonists are wrought by them. “The Little Things” simply doesn’t do this, and we are never given a sense of dread or mounting pressure to bring the case to its conclusion.
Even as the film attempts to bring it all together, it just continues to go farther and farther off the rails as the third act trudges along. For the sake spoilers, I can’t even really tell you what other films the ending of “The Little Things” reminds me of, which should speak to just how unoriginal the film ends up becoming. It is not a good sign when mentioning other, better films gives an ending away for a completely different film. Hancock is by no means the best writer or director, but he is far more capable than what is on display here. Squandering his impressive cast is yet another misstep all around, and it never fully recovers, even as the credits roll.
Look, I don’t like being right about these kinds of films. But it’s almost impossible not to be at least a little bit skeptical as “The Little Things” had all the writings on the wall for it being a dud. From the star studded cast that already seemed out of place from the trailer to the February release date to the 90s setting due to the film being written by Hancock 30 years ago, it had a lot going against it from the jump. Unfortunately, the film wastes its cast, mirrors the story and characters after much better films and kind of deserves its February studio dump release.
For a movie titled “The Little Things,” it is actually the little things that make the film a lackluster attempt at crime thrillers.
Seriously, just watch “Se7en.”