The Little Things (2021) Review
In amongst the various popular film genres of action, comedy, horror, and sci-fi, the subgenre crime suspense thrillers have subverted itself with mystery, intrigue, and narrative driven storytelling. While this particular niche area can be interpreted in different ways and a variety of avenues, the realm of crime serial killer narratives has been the more popular, with many gravitating towards their elusive tales of murder and solving cases as a fix point of cinematic treatment. Because of this area delving into both detective workings as well as psyche mind of psychopaths, many have found an interest in viewing such murderous stories of serial killers and “following the bread crumbs” trail towards the narrative’s conclusion (and everything that happens in-between). Naturally, Hollywood has produced many serial killer movies, including several famous ones such as 1960’s Psycho, 1991’s The Silence of Lambs, 1995’s Se7en, 1997’s Kiss the Girl, 1999’s Bone Collector, and 2007’s Zodiac just to name a few. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director John Lee Hancock present the latest film of the crime suspense thriller genre with the serial capper drama feature titled The Little Things. Does this movie’s deliver on producing a solid crime thriller or does it get lost within its own mess of dreariness and mystery?
John “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a deputy sheriff in rural suburbs of California, is asked to visit Los Angeles to pick up evidence for an investigation. Having left the city several years earlier, Deke is hesitant to return, soon reunited with the police department he left behind and feeling a bit uneasy returning to such a place. The department has a new hotshot detective on the scene with Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), an ego-driven guy that’s interested in Deke’s sudden presence, encouraging the senior officer offer some advice on the preliminary investigation of a young woman insider her apartment. This triggers Deke into recalling of a serial killer case that was unsolved back in his day, sending the deputy sheriff back into an obsessive behavior that was nearly destroyed his life. Reconnecting with evidence that suggest that the two cases are the same, Deke begins his own investigation into the case, with Baxter, while hesitant at first, quickly enters the foray of Deke’s leads, soon targeting Leo Sparma (Jared Leto), a local eccentric / creepy individual who fits the profile and enjoys testing the detective’s limits with information concerning the murdered woman. As the case continues, Deke and Baxter delve deeper and deeper into a whole that neither one can get out of go…until the case is solved.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While usually not my particular favorite genre, I have seeing plenty of crime suspense thrillers that center around serial killer cases. As I said in my opening paragraph, the idea of framing a feature around such an idea is quite alluring and has a little bit of that reality within its context. I mean…. stories menacing aliens bent on wiping out life on Earth or emerging malic-driven creatures from darkest legends and myths seems a bit a far fetch from the real world, but narratives focusing on human individuals, who psychotic natures and abusive behaviors from childhood / traumatic events in their lives, preying and / or slaying upon the weak and innocent seems a bit more human and closer towards reality. As I stated above, there are plenty of “fan favorite” ones of serial killer crime dramas such as Se7en, Zodiac, and The Silence of the Lambs (all of which I’ve seeing and loved), but there are a few other ones that liked, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (both international 2009 version and the 2011 US version) as well as Spilt. All in all, while crime thrillers focusing on serial killers might not trump action blockbusters or raunchy comedies (in both terms of commercial box office success or popularity amongst moviegoers, the subgenre still garnishes plenty of attention; amassing viewers with its submerging thoughts of mystery and intrigue.
This brings me back to talking about The Little Things, a 2021 thriller and the latest of the crime noir thriller genre. I did remember hearing about this project a while back when actors Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto were being attached to this project. However, this movie’s inception dates all the way back to the somewhere in the 90s with the idea being tossed around by several studios as well as several directors being attached to this feature, including Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Either way, the film’s trailer, which was released late 2020s, offered up an intriguing “cat and mouse” detective story that seemed quite atmospheric within its moody premise. Plus, with its assembled star power of acting talents, The Little Things seemed like an “Oscar bait” type of project, but in a good way as I was kind of expecting a lot of nominations for this movie during this upcoming award season. With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, the film, which was originally set to be released in theaters, was part of the Warner Bros. Studios releases that were going to be released both in theaters and HBO Max on mid-January; marking one of the first “big hype” movies of the 2021 year. For me, I was interested in the movie, but I wanted to wait a little, especially because I was still trying to play “catch up” with some of the 2020 movie releases that I didn’t see / review as well a few 2021 movies that were quickly coming in and out of my movie theater for shorter duration. Plus, I do have HBO Max, so I could watch the film from the privacy of my home. While I waited to see the movie, I do read / hear a lot of mixed reviews and thoughts about The Little Things, with many calling it a poor man’s version of the movie Seven and calling the movie itself “nothing special”. Still, I decided to give the movie a chance and finally watched The Little Things one night after work. And what did I think of it? Well, I kind of agree with a lot of the people who said about this project. Despite the atmospheric nature of the film and the solid acting of the main leads, The Little Things is a dated crime noir thriller that feels inconclusive to its own resolution. It’s not completely disastrous as a few are making it out to be, but the end result of the movie leaves a lot to be desired for a better execution and a better narrative to be had.
The Little Things is directed John Lee Hancock, whose previous directorial works include such films like The Highwaymen, The Rookie, and The Founder. As mentioned above, Hancock, who also pens scripts as a film writer, has had the idea for a film like this for quite some time…dating all the way back to the 90s. With the project being tossed around for nearly two and half decades, Hancock himself decided to take up the reigns for directing this particular serial killer project; helming The Little Things in both “double duty roles” as director and script handler. In this regard, Hancock’s attempts are admirable and commendable; crafting and shaping a neo-crime noir thriller that seems a bit of a throwback project. Though, I do have to admit that this concept is a bit of a “double edge” sword aspect (more on that below). Looking beyond that, Hancock makes the film feel more like a detective story rather than trying to capture the blood and guts gory aspect of the crime. What do I mean? Well, today’s movies more focus on the “shock and awe” of the crimes being committed by an individual rather than the detective work involved in trying to unravel the case. Thus, Hancock delivers (on this front) a good look into a detective story, with lead characters of Deke and Baxter following clues and doing their do-diligences of finding their suspect. Of course, there is still blood and imagery of the deceased victims from the suppose “killer at large”, but its more downplay; finding Hancock focusing more on characters rather than the nuances made of the subgenre. As I said, the movie feels different from what many would expect from a crime thriller of today’s lineup of releases and I think that what I liked about The Little Things, especially since a lot of cinematic projects feel either half-baked or haphazard. This particular film seems a bit more grounded in its realism and gritty rather than going off on a tangent of fantasy-esque psychopath thrillers.
In addition to that, The Little Things’s presentation is quite solid and definitely lends credence and authenticity to the feature’s positive remarks. What the film lacks in its depth and narrative beats, Hancock makes up for it in its atmospheric nuances, with the picture having a particular type of grit and realism throughout. Nothing is presented in a grandiose way for hyper-fantasy to make the feature feel “glitzy” or “move like”, with majority of movie feels like its in the real world; drumming up the organic feeling of the urban city landscape of Los Angles. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Samantha Avila and Lauren E. Polizzi (art direction), Michael Corenblith (production design), and Susan Benjamin (set decorations), for their efforts to make the feature will life-like and appropriate for its time period and background setting. Plus, the film’s cinematography by John Schwartzman is quite good; delivering plenty of atmospheric dreariness and mood throughout the film in layering everything in an uneasy way with usage of camera work and lightening. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by Thomas Newman aides that atmospheric thriller tone perfectly with his moody sounding composition that delivers on every front.
Unfortunately, The Little Things fails to deliver a striking and stirring feature within its own context by drawing a lot of criticism within how the film ultimately pans out and how it resolves its story by the time the film reaches its inevitable conclusion. Perhaps one of the most common criticisms that many can agree upon about this movie is in how dated the feature’s story is. Granted, the story of The Little Things is definitely intriguing as a sort of “cat and mouse” detective story angle as everything starts building to a head (something that put as a positive in my cinematic critique). However, it’s all been done before and seems a bit outdated when comparing to other detective cinematic endeavors out there of late. Perhaps this goes back to how long the feature has been in “the drawing room” since the 90s; a time period of which this particular neo-crime thriller would be wanting. Because of this, the movie’s narrative premise, while definitely intriguing, leaves a lot to be desire throughout; generating a lot of dated and commonplace tropes of crime thriller capper that are predictable and formulaic to the touch.
Due to this, Hancock’s direction for the film isn’t exactly the greatest; lacking a certain finesse for the feature to follow through on and never really going that extra “step” to make the movie satisfying in conclusion. In truth, Hancock makes the film feel like a watered-down version of the movie Se7en; a particular similar crime thriller that has a better understanding of subverting its atmospheric tones and themes within a wholesome / satisfying narrative. Speaking of conclusion, the ending of The Little Things is perhaps the biggest criticism that many can agree on is one of the worst parts of the film. I’m not going to spoil it for my readers, but suffice to say that the ending portion of the film isn’t exactly the best send-off for the movie, leaving a lot of answers unanswered by the time the end credits begin to roll. Hancock certainly moves events in the narrative along and everything starts to build to a particular head…. waiting for that “big reveal” to drop and leaves us (the viewers) shocked within the last big twists in the climatic part of the third act. That, unfortunately, never happens as the proverbial “ball” of The Little Things never drops and what Hancock presents leaves almost unsatisfying conclusion to a crime thriller that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s quite frustrating and I personally felt like the ending of The Little Things was a letdown, especially since the twist that Hancock presents leaves several narrative threads left dangling.
Additionally, the feature is quite the slow burner; exploring and peeling away at its narrative in quite a slow manner. This is perfectly fine if the pay off for the film is acceptable. However, with the ending of The Little Things not being stellar nor wanting within its context, the sluggish of how Hancock unveils the sequences of events (up to that point) feels disappointing and (again) leaves a lot to be desire from the picture. The way he (as both director and writer) tries to navigate the events and characters in the film isn’t quite up to snuff; creating pacing issues in an otherwise slow-paced endeavor. Plus, as I’ll mention below, a great majority of the supporting players in the film (and a few edges of the main characters) feel underdeveloped and lack depth in their various capacity. Perhaps if Hancock had a better handle on the project in way that he had co-writer / co-director, The Little Things could’ve had a better polish (and undercoat) to make “the bad” look in a better light. What’s presented, however, leaves many cringing with a movie that has plenty of cliches and tropes in a crime thriller that feels dated and lacks a proper execution, especially in its final conclusion.
Perhaps one of the main strengths that The Little Things has going for it is in its cast or rather its main cast of characters, with assembling a trio of some fine acting “A-list” talents to make these character quite remarkable, despite a few limitations that hold them back in a few categories. First up is actor Denzel Washington, who portrays the film’s first main protagonist character of Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Kern County Deputy Sheriff that quickly gets entangled into the film’s main case. Washing, known for his roles in Training Day, Cry Freedom, and Remember the Titans, has gain quite the reputation as a respectable and commanding actor in Hollywood; finding many of his roles memorable due to the seasoned actor’s screen presence / talents he brings for each feature. Rest assured that same degree of thespian talent and caliber is brought forward into this movie, with Washington easily sliding into the role of Deke and displaying the right amount of restraint / demeanor into the character. Washington also does a good job in making the character of Deke rather subtle in his nuances by never “over-acting” or over dramatizing his performances, but still makes the character rather intriguing; haunted by his past and hellbent on trying to solve the case. All in all, Washington really does anchor the feature and one of the best parts of the film in my opinion.
Behind Washington, actor Rami Malek delivers a solid character role in the film’s second protagonist character of Jim Baxter, a new and upcoming LASD Detective Jim Baxter who’s bent on solving a case and ask assist from Deke to help solve it. Known for his roles in The Master, Mr. Robot, and Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek has certainly made a name for his himself as an actor, especially after given his stirring performance as Freddie Mercury in Rhapsody. Thus, it comes as no surprise that he would be offer a lot of prominent roles in feature films…. such as co-starring lead role in this movie. To his credit and in his acting ability, Malek does shine in The Little Things; projecting a more young and brasher character in Baxter, a character who wants to get the job done yet looks to Deke for answer…. becoming something more as the feature goes deeper. Yes, the character of Baxter is a bit traditional to the stereotypical cliches of detective narratives (i.e. a traditional yet young, wide eyed character that’s by-the-book). One can obviously see this, but Malek plays the character in a intriguing way that is a great foil up against the subtle yet determination of Washington’s Deke. Plus, the pairing of Washington and Malek themselves (together on-screen is quite different that no one saw coming, but they do intend play off one another; sharing a solid on-screen chemistry on the classic detective narrative….in a good way.
The third main lead in the movie is actor Jared Leto, who plays the somewhat antagonist of the feature in the character of Albert Sparma, an eccentric and creepy individual who is the Deke and Baxter’s number one suspect in their on-going case. Leto, known for his roles in Suicide Squad, Dallas Buyers Club, and Blade Runner 2049, has always been well-known for really “getting into” his character roles as well as playing such eccentric roles to his liking. In this regard, Leto definitely very much succeeds; playing Sparma with plenty of the actor’s distinct nuances that he’s known for; a creepy dark sense of humor that makes you uneasy every he’s on-screen. However, the main problem is within the character himself as Hancock’s script doesn’t really delve into the mind of Sparma. Very little is known about him in the film and viewers can be left scratching their heads by the time the feature reaches its end credits. It’s perplexing and a bit unsatisfying. Thus, Leto’s performance is quite nuanced and really makes the character of Sparma memorable more so than how Hancock written him for the narrative.
Unfortunately, pretty much everyone else beyond the three main leads are left in more minor supporting players that are mostly forgettable within their character roles. Some are a bit recognizable from their past endeavors, but, in the matter of their character in The Little Things, none of them truly shine. This includes actor Chris Bauer (True Blood and The Wire) as Detective Sal Rizzoli, actress Michael Hyatt (Snowfall and Fame) as Flo Dunlgan, actor Terry Kinney (Oz and Billions) as LASD Captain Carl Farris, actress Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation and The Newsroom) as Detective Jamie Estrada, actress Isabela Arraiza (Pearson and The Oath) as Ana Baxter, actor Joris Jarsky (Bad Blood and The Art of More) as Detective Sergeant Rogers, actor Glen Morshower (24 and The Resident) as Captain Henry Davis, and actor Frederick Koehler (Pepper Dennis and Oz) as Stan Peters. These acting talents don’t give bad acting performances as most of them are quite good, but sadly none of them make an impactful mark on The Little Thing’s narrative; making all of these supporting characters in the story rather bland, one-dimensional, and forgettable; serviceable to push events along or for the trio of main leads to bounce around with. Kind of a disappointment.
Two detectives (Deke and Baxter) team up to solve an on-going serial killer case; drumming up old obsessive behavior from Deke’s past as event push forward in the film The Little Things. Director John Lee Hancock’s latest movie takes a stab at the serial killer crime thriller narrative; projecting a film that excels within its atmospheric nature of moods and mystery and feeling like a old school “serial killer” of yesteryear. Unfortunately, while that notions seems intriguing and excels within its main cast (Washington, Malek, and Leto are solid in their roles), it does cause the feature to backfire, with Hancock lacking the precision to execute the story properly (i.e., feeling derivate, dated, and cliched ridden) as well as pacing issues and an ending twist that feels lackluster and unsatisfying. Personally, I thought that this movie was okay-ish and yet I was disappointed slightly. For most part, I thought that the acting was incredible and definitely was a well-made film (cinematography / presentation-wise), but the story itself, while interesting, felt derivate and the conclusion left me with unsatisfied. I think a lot of people will feel that way about this film. Although, I could be wrong. Thus, my recommendation for the movie would be a solid “iffy choice” as there is something to like about the project, but it isn’t the absolute best serial killer crime thriller that many, including Hancock, were expecting. In the end, The Little Things has plenty of good ideas within its own serial killer premise, but lacks conviction and proper execution to make its landing stick on the cinematic landscape; feeling the feature to be, for lack of a better word, inconclusive.
3.3 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: January 29th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 1st, 2021
The Little Things is 128 minutes long and is rated R for violent / disturbing images, language and full nudity