With an all-star cast, The Little Things is a fascinating neo-noir thriller that is equally tired and haunting; deep and underweight. Director John Lee Hancock makes a hell of a dichotomous feature showing the scary and the beautiful; the quick and the dead.
If released in the period of the movie’s setting, that of soda-sticky multiplexes and B-52’s pop, The Little Things would have been yet another gem on Denzel’s championship belt. Being released as a streamer, and up against a wave of similar-themed, long-format shows, this bobs along as entertainment but does not have the buoyancy to propel itself to the top.
John Lee Hancock directs The Little Things with the tinted view of a noir. The opening chase on a deserted road beautifully sets the theme with an undeniable call-back to the Buffalo Bill abduction scene from Silence of the Lambs (which, contemporaneously, would have happened a year after the events here). The Little Things feels unlike anything Hancock has previously done (The Highwaymen excluded), as he takes inspiration from numerous police detective tales such as True Detective and even Se7en. Hancock allows the characters to grow, but perhaps at the detriment of the plot. Much of the police work is only teased, or blatantly ignored, in order for the ghosts of the past to haunt the present.
The Little Things is well done but doesn’t feel entirely finished.
A serial killer is preying on women traveling alone at night on the streets of 1990’s Los Angeles. Former LA detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is asked by his former partner to help out current LAPD star, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) with the case. At first reluctant, Baxter realizes that Deacon’s instincts, although shellshocked, are sound and the two begin to tackle the case together. Following a loose clue from a recent murder, Deacon picks up the trail of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), an appliance repairman with a record. Sparma is full-on North Hollywood creepy but, interestingly enough, he might not be the actual suspect. Until Deacon and Baxter realize they might need to make him one.
Hancock, who supplies the script, works in a backstory that slowly unravels itself through flashbacks and ghostly figures. The actors have full-on power with their roles but the movie becomes more of a character study than a plot-smart thriller. Too many introduced elements and not enough follow-through.
The Little Things boasts three Oscar winners. Denzel retains his swagger and shades. Leto remains a greasy-haired threat. While Malik is all cool composure, ready to crack. Denzel is no stranger to playing police but now, getting older, eagerly transitions his wisdom to Malik. This is not Alonso schooling Jake in Training Day but Ben Kenobi opening Luke’s eyes to the Force. Denzel is a master and his performance is entirely enjoyable. Even when his eyes constantly turn back to the ghosts closely following.
Although Malik’s Baxter might be too accommodating in accepting Deacon’s help, Leto’s Sparma becomes that perfect Hitchcockian antagonist. His piercing eyes and commanding talk are viable with enough to deceit as you await for him to go full-on Norman Bates. Even if that does not exactly happen.
Cinematographer John Schwartzman makes 1990s LA real through those intimidating streets. Especially when empty. And under that glorious California sun. Even the mundane becomes hyper, especially during a scene when Deacon is trailing Sparma on the 101. In a single-shot wonder, the camera moves from Deacon’s Ford, up the highway, and into Sparma’s muscle car. All safety and speed and danger in one great scene.
Further, those mean streets look timeless. Yes, the late 80s still abound in cars and fashion and song. Once those shadows fall? This could be Phillip Marlowe of the 19050s or Harry Bosch of the 2010s.
Thomas Newman masterfully provides an original score that does away with the solo horns of the genre, and instead uses piano themes and electronic beats. The music deepens at night, pulses during a chase, and ticks like a clock.
Hancock does more than offer a period procedural. He offers a deep story and wants his characters to go through those rote steps yet none of which ultimately services the mystery. Ghosts continue to haunt those protective angels, no matter their justified rest.
The Little Things is a captivating, murder mystery with terrific performances by all three leads but where it decides to leave you when the credits roll may make you second guess your choice to join the investigation