The Little Things
2021, NR, 127 min. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Michael Hyatt, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Jan. 29, 2021
For better or worse, 2021 marks the beginning of HBO Max’s grand streaming experiment. After launching their simultaneous release strategy on an unsuspecting public – and in several cases, their own unwilling creatives – there’s nothing left for Warner Bros. to do but sit back and see how audiences respond. And first up is The Little Things, a period police thriller and anchor for the unique star power of Denzel Washington.
Banished to the hinterlands after burning out and burning bridges over a still-open case, former Los Angeles police detective Joe Deacon (Washington) finds himself back in the City of Angels and on the heels of a murderer. When a routine evidence run causes him to cross paths with hotshot cop Jim Baxter (Malek), the two begin to notice similarities between Baxter’s current case and Deacon’s unsolved murders. It isn’t long before the two men end up on the doorstep of Albert Sparma (Leto), a sinister loner who might be the man they’ve both been hunting.
There’s a temptation to view The Little Things through a post-2020 lens, one where filmmakers have openly grappled with the topic of law enforcement. Tempting, perhaps, but ahistorical. According to Hancock, the first draft of The Little Things dates back to 1993; the director has also claimed that the film’s final version is “85-90%” of what initially appeared on the page. But while many films suffer from too much time in the over, the prolonged development of Hancock’s feature ends up being one of its most unique strengths.
Two decades – the time between when the film was conceived and released – is the perfect buffer for a contemporary police procedural. The Little Things walks a fine line between modern and immediate; we can appreciate the conventions of the genre without grappling with the depiction of a brutal police force in modern-day Los Angeles. If nothing else, smart producers should note how even a mid-1990s setting can change the entire timbre of a narrative.
But while the setting might work in the film’s favor, few other things do. The problems begin with Rami Malek. Everything that makes Malek interesting as an actor sits in contrast to the character he is supposed to play. Baxter is meant to be a boy scout, a conscientious young cop who stands as Joe Deacon’s polar opposite in every way. But Malek is at his best when he is meant to be unsettled – or, just as often, unsettling – and the film is immeasurably better when he is offscreen.
And then there’s Leto. Never one to make small choices, Leto’s performance adds a slight absurdist streak to the feature, one that both Malek and Washington seem unwilling to match. Watch the walk that Leto adopts; he moves like a character in a video game, waddling between locations in a manner meant to draw the eye of characters and audience alike. It’s a performance in search of a different movie, one where Washington – using the same haunted affectations he’s perfected over a decade of thrillers – is freed to match him in intensity.
The Little Things is at its best early on, when we’re asked to see Deacon through the eyes of the men whose trust he’s lost. But as the film slowly becomes a battle of the will between Deacon, Baxter, and Sparma, its strengths bleed away, leaving it as a series of cop tropes that might’ve seemed more shocking all those decades ago. How you end your film matters, but how you get there is just as important. Whatever points The Little Things scores for a morally ambiguous ending are washed away in the hours it takes to get there.