Film Review – The Little Things
The Little Things
The Little Things (2021) feels like it belongs to a bygone era. It’s influenced by the mystery/thrillers of the 90s and 2000s, such as Kiss the Girls (1997) or Along Came a Spider (2001). Denzel Washington – who stars here – had his hand in the genre too, with Fallen (1998) and The Bone Collector (1999). But writer/director John Lee Hancock borrows the most from David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) in terms of tone and theme. But unlike Fincher, Hancock is unable to maintain narrative momentum. His film lacks urgency and tension, instead following the well-worn path of those that came before it. It tries to be something substantial but ends up feeling weightless.
It starts off well. A young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) is driving along a California highway at night. She sees another car pulling up fast behind her. She and the other driver (who is cloaked in shadow) play a game of Dosey Doe, stopping and starting and switching positions on the road in increasingly suspenseful fashion. In classic horror-movie tradition, she pulls over at a rundown diner and tries to escape her pursuer on foot. This is an inspired sequence, calling back to other automobile-centric horror films like Duel (1971) and The Hitcher (1986). In fact, it might be too well executed, because the production is never able to recapture that sense of brooding terror.
Washington plays Deke, a former L.A. detective haunted by the dead women whose cases he was unable to solve. The pain and stress have given him health problems, dissolved his marriage, and drove him out of the city to the dusty edges of Kern County. But the need to solve another murder digs too deep. When L.A. is terrorized by an unknown serial killer, Deke joins forces with the man who replaced him, the hotshot Baxter (Rami Malek) to help track the assailant down. Not only does Deke return to help stop a murderer, but also has to face his past and free the ghosts that follow him.
There are very few actors that can inhabit the skin of their characters the way Denzel Washington does. He is the central highlight here, delivering yet another strong performance as the burnt-out cop who can’t tear himself way from the job. Washington – now well into his sixties – leans into his age. The strapping handsome man is now accompanied by greying hair, wrinkles, and a heavier frame. I say this not as a bad thing. In fact, Washington uses all of the details of his face and body to show Deke battling an internal struggle. All of Deke’s experience and skill are featured in every gesture and facial expression Washington gives. So too is all of the guilt he tries so hard to suppress.
It’s too bad that the rest of The Little Things fail to rise to Washington’s level. All of the other elements are thinly drawn out – from the procedural aspects down to character motivations. The first act starts off with a lot of promise, but as soon as Deke and Baxter start their investigation the narrative’s pacing shifts way down. A lot of this is due to character development. Outside of Deke, we don’t really learn much about anybody else. Baxter is a blank slate – we learn very little about him other than he has a beautiful family and likes being in the spotlight. Hancock gives him little dimension compared to his onscreen partner.
There’s also a severe lack of strong female characters. All of the women are victims, dead bodies, or passive lovers. Hancock places the dead women that haunt Deke within the same space he occupies, like spirits that never leave. While this may fuel Deke’s reasons to keep fighting the good fight, they play like soulless wax figures. Who were they? What did they do? What were their hopes and dreams before they were brutally killed? All of these questions are ignored. If there is any female character of significance, it’s Natalie Morales’ Detective Estrada, but she only operates to simply assist Baxter.
I’m not sure what Jared Leto is doing with his performance. He plays Albert Sparma, a loner and eccentric that Deke and Baxter finger as a possible suspect. Leto’s character belongs in another movie. He hams up every scene he is in, cracking sarcastic jokes like some kind of supervillain. Where Washington and Malek are aiming for grounded realism, Leto is reaching for the absurd. He looks like he’s playing the unhinged twin brother of his character from Blade Runner 2049 (2017). His makeup and costuming features shaggy hair and an unkempt beard, and what appears to be fat suit. Leto completes the transformation with an awkward shuffle that calls way too much attention to itself. There is no question that Leto has the capability to do just about anything, and at his best can deliver an Oscar winning performance. But in this case the writing and direction fail to hold him back from going too far.
The further we go into The Little Things, the worse it gets. The third act tries to pull the rug from under us with a twist that’s meant to surprise and provoke but ends up being anticlimactic. I understand what Hancock and the production were trying to do – questioning the extent people are willing to go to find closure and peace. But the ending betrays everything that came before it. Compare how strong the film started to how weak it ends – the real mystery is how it got there.