A trio of great actors search for meaning over clues in this L.A.-set thriller.
One of the few times Denzel Washington had a thriller released in the January/February time of the year, the result was Fallen; another police procedural featuring a supernatural element which totally elevated it. The film was not a hit at first and took a while for it to find its small, yet devoted audience. In a sense though, Fallen instantly typified everything about the Denzel cop thriller sub-genre that works, especially when it comes to character. Nearly every time Washington takes on a cop role, he’s embodying men clinging to their humor and wits while never letting themselves forget who they are and what they do as they wrestle with their demons. This latest entry in the Washington movie cop canon is both a throwback and a variation of this blueprint. It’s a film rich in character which gives the actor a more than fine showcase even as it lets most of the genre’s fans down in the process.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things stars Washington as Joe Deacon, a small town California Deputy summoned back to Los Angeles years after his handing of a case stripped him of a promising career as a homicide Detective and all but ran him out of town. Before Joe knows it, he finds himself roped into the case of a murdered young woman by an upshot young Detective named Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who traces a number of clues back to a creepy loner named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto).
It pains me a bit to say this, but people will not like The Little Things. The film’s marketing has the movie poised to be an enjoyable kind of early year escapist thriller; a Law & Order episode featuring higher profile stars and a more involving plot. While the film does legitimately have this, it doesn’t have enough of it to successfully work. There is a crime, sure, but it’s mainly a peripheral one used as an excuse to keep Joe in town, illustrate Jim’s obsessive nature and allow Albert to be creepy. At the risk of sounding too dismissive, the crime itself is handled rather shabbily. Hancock has written a thriller with a crime, the details of which venture back and forth between needlessly dense and flat out uninteresting. It certainly doesn’t help that the film’s transitions between Joe’s past and his present are roughly handled, sloppily blending the crime that caused him to leave town and the one that’s brought him back. There’s such a stop and start motion to The Little Things in this regard. Every time Joe and Jim engage in some character-driven banter, we welcome it as a chance to let the mystery fester and build. When such moments begin to happen more and more, it suddenly dawns on us that Hancock and his film have no interest at all in solving the crime they’ve created.
And yet, people should still give The Little Things a chance and stick with it until the end regardless. For a start, the world Hancock has created here is a quietly fascinating one. The film is set in Los Angeles, but you’d never know it. Every square mile traveled by the characters feels like the kind of two-stop, speed trap town where nothing good can possibly exist. There are palm trees and sunshine here, sure; but the L.A. of The Little Things is a different one. It’s an L.A that’s both desolate and hopeless, where ghosts exist among and within the people who live there. It’s fitting then that the characters themselves prove to be the kind of tormented individuals just right for such a world. Joe is a man haunted by his past and the awful act which drove him away. Now that he’s returned, he’s realizing that must actually face it. Jim meanwhile, is a man with an obsessive and slightly volatile nature when it comes to his work, which is consuming him to the point where he will eventually be just as lost as Joe. In Jim, Joe sees a way of righting his past and stopping his unexpected protege from having to do the same in the future. Eventually, The Little Things insists that the pair become the best of bros when the story’s stakes are raised. Yet it’s hard not to be slightly moved by these two haunted men; both mirror images of each other from different points in time.
With this trio of actors, plenty of eyes will be on the performances, especially once the mystery itself falls by the wayside. Washington of course, never lets anyone down. He brings out Joe’s ghosts beautifully, particularly in a scene in which he’s speaking softly to a murder victim, delivering a monologue both beautiful and solemn. Malek sorely pales in comparison. Not only does he not match his more seasoned costar, but seems totally out of his depth when it comes to Jim’s compulsive nature, not to mention the script’s pensive tone. Leto is the film’s highlight and manages to make Albert both menacing and surprisingly playful, even earning a couple of chuckles along the way. It’s just a shame that the film essentially thinks it needs him more than it does and eventually has no idea what to do with the character.
The Little Things is perhaps Hancock’s finest film. I mean that as both a compliment and a shot since I cared so little for the likes of The Rookie, The Alamo or The Blind Side. While those films all reveled in their respective conventions (which Hancock attempted to pass off as novel), The Little Things does just the opposite. It employs conventions, for sure; but instead uses them only as needed. This is a film about the job and it’s ability to overtake and overpower to the point of self-destruction. As a theme, this is far from anything new. Still, it’s hard not to give an approving nod at Hancock’s desire to look into the mentality of this world’s haunted souls in an undeniably genuine way.