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THE LITTLE THINGS (2021) review

January 26, 2021


written by: John Hancock
produced by: Mark Johnson and John Lee Hancock
directed by: John Lee Hancock
rating: R (for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity)
runtime: 127 min.
U.S. release date: January 29, 2021 (select theaters & HBO Max)


Back in 1993 director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side” and “The Founder”) wrote an original screenplay for his latest movie, “The Little Things”, a somewhat pulpy serial killer thriller set in 1990. That’s not surprising, since watching it will conjure the kinds of suspenseful yarns that typically came out in the 90s. That’s not a slight in the least, but it does give an indication what Hancock is aiming for here. It’s hard to believe some viewers (self included) will have a certain nostalgia for movies that came out not that long ago (at least, that’s what we think) while watching the story unfold. At one point, Spielberg was offered the script, but deemed it “too dark” (that year he released “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List”, so he had already hit his threshold for dark) and turned it down and then it was rumored the likes of Clint Eastwood (who lensed to Hancock screenplays with “A Perfect World” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito were attached, but it was tucked away until Hancock was ready to bring his to the big-screen with his own personal stamp.

Of course, with the current viewing climate here in the States, “The Little Things” won’t be on the amount of screens Hancock and Warner Brothers originally hoped. The studio will be releasing the movie this week wherever theaters are open, as well as a month-long simultaneous release on HBO Max. For the most part, this is a well-crafted, character-driven thriller that has a pitch-perfect mood with just the right tone, but it feels like Hancock could’ve benefited from a co-writer (or at least another pair of eyes), considering what occurs as the story concludes.

At the age of semi-retirement, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) works as a deputy sheriff in Kern County (Bakersfield, California area) in the fall of 1990 when his Captain (Glenn Morshower) orders him to go down to Los Angeles to procure some bloody boots for evidence on a local case. Upon his arrival, it becomes clear this is the location where he spent most of his time in law enforcement as a detective with a unique and meticulous approach. As Deke is acknowledged with apprehension by his former boss, LASD Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney) and greeted with nostalgic warmth from former colleagues, Detective Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer) and forensic pathologist (Michael Hyatt), a shrouded history of his time as a detective on the LAPD is hinted at. He is embraced as something of a legend (maybe even a ghost) as he strides through the crime division of the precinct, drawing the attention of Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek) a young and confident lead detective with a strict by-the-book approach, who just so happens to be investigating a string of recent serial murders of young women that resemble unresolved murders that still haunt Deke.



At first, Jimmy feels somewhat threatened by Deke’s presence, but that turns to curiosity when he learns of the veteran’s past notoriety in the detective field. Soon enough what was supposed to be a short jaunt to the City of Angels, becomes extended “vacation time” as Deke stays around a little longer after Jimmy asks for Deke’s expertise on similar cases that come up. A ride along here, a visit to a crimes scene there, and next thing you know Deke is operating his own periphery investigation of the current murders, which is frowned upon by the department yet embraced by Jimmy, with the younger detective inspired and impressed with Deke’s unique approach. One suspect Deke comes across is appliance repairman and grease monkey Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who fits the stereotypical profile of someone who’s creepy, crafty, and conveniently into true crime, someone who winds up provoking the detectives even though there is very little connecting him to the crimes. All three characters inevitably converge and come to a head in unfortunate and dangerous ways, as Jimmy and Deke cross their own lines, given into their own respective obsessions.

“The Little Things” starts off with a riveting opening, accentuated by an absorbing score by veteran composer Thomas Newman (“The Player”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and Hancock’s last feature, “The Highwaymen”) and striking cinematography from frequent Hancock collaborator John Schwartzman, as the camera follows a lone young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) driving solo late at night on a dark California road. She isn’t totally immersed in the B-52’s “Roam” to the point where she’s oblivious to a larger vehicle that speeds up in her review mirror then catches up alongside her, toying with the now-petrified driver. That ends with her leaving her vehicle at a closed roadside diner and hysterically flagging down a semi-truck after frantically running away from her predator, whose distinctive boots were the only outstanding identifier. It’s a straight-up riveting opener which sets the tone for the rest of the film. It also subverts expectations in that we expect her life to end and how a pivotal scene with her later on plays out as a key moment in the story’s development is surprisingly affective and impacts the suspicions that surround Leto’s Albert character.

While the movie does wind up invoking the tropes of a handful of familiar serial killer crime procedurals from the 90s, the distinctiveness of the time period with the prevalence of pay phones and limited use of technology adds to the presentation of cold and detached characters. One of those tropes would be the initial dichotomy between the two lead characters, the relatively new and ambitious detective and the older psychologically wounded one with a mysterious past, and the eventual obsessive similarities in them. Jimmy, played by Malek with a decidedly one-note smugness and a line delivery that resembles a young John Malkovich, is a problematic character in that there isn’t much to the young family man apart from his cocksure confidence and Hancock really never provides any actual evidence why he is supposedly so good at his job. One wrong-headed decision in the third act feels frustratingly unearned and very much an impetuous rookie move on the part of the character, which really derails how the movie ends. That’s unfortunate.



Fortunately there’s Denzel, who once again proves his movie star status with his Denzel-isms that are still quite impacting. Deke is the protagonist of the story and Hancock lucks out with Washington’s deftly nuanced choices as Deke. At any time, it feels like a darker side to Deke could be revealed and that’s thanks to Denzel’s no-nonsense performance that imbues the character with a palpable restlessness and a regret for the family he inadvertently distanced himself from over the years after the significant event that caused him to leave the LAPD. While Jimmy works a case for his devotion to the job and prideful accolades, Deke becomes obsessed with cases to appease his own conscience and Washington excels in portraying some of the fittingly quieter moments Deke has. He’s an intriguing character that’s set apart from everyone else probably by choice and has a proclivity for talking to dead victims and is seemingly visited by the ghosts of the deceased young women he is studying over, as if they are looking for him to atone them. Washington’s Deke could easily be expanded upon in episodic form in a show like “True Detective” or “Mindhunter”, such an approach could probably offer up more time for Malek to do something more with his role as well.

Hancock is asking too much of his audience to have us get on board with the supposed antagonist of “The Little Things”. At this point, Jared Leto has a “creepy suspicious guy” down and his mere presence is suspicious, which kind of hampers the believability of his Albert Sparma as a suspect. He’s weird, strange, and he toys with the detectives, but getting a hard on looking at photos of mutilated victims during questioning doesn’t make him the guy to pin everything on. Deke and Jimmy spend too much time tailing this guy and in the end it just feels like it all occurs simply because Leto is so good at playing a weirdo. It would’ve been much more satisfying and compelling if all their focus on Albert revealed that the killer was actually someone else who was right under their nose all along. In fact, that would’ve been a nicely added 90s touch.

It’s hard to ignore the obvious while watching “The Little Things” and not think how in its best moments we’re essentially treated to three Oscar winners working off each other, even if some of the decisions the characters make eventually pulls you out of the story. It’s never a good sign to see a suspenseful mystery upended by one or two bad (and crucial) decisions from characters who should know better. While there are several, ahem, little things, that work and serve the underlying dread and creepiness throughout “The Little Things”, there are also big things in the third act that will leave you sitting with frustration.



RATING: **1/2



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