“The Little Things” has talent but lacks a clue towards telling a tale of real intrigue
A Movie Review by Victor DeBonis
“The Little Things” is a 2021 detective movie that has a few neat ideas and wants to stand out from other entries of its genre with a feel and style of its own, which is admirable, but it ends up not being anything particularly different or as deep as it is trying to be. This is a shame because it possesses sincere talent with its main actors and its director, John Lee Hancock, who has made good movies in the past, such as “The Founder” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” Where the movie stumbles and can’t truly pick itself up from is its screenplay from Hancock, containing many moments of driving around here and there but never diving deeper into its characters or bringing any genuine sense of intrigue or thrills to its mystery along the way.
Denzel Washington and Rami Malek do the best that they can with their roles and what’s given to them. Both of them perform superbly with Washington bringing the familiar charisma and visible intensity that make him such a fun actor to watch and Malek possessing a steely look and sternness that allows him to be quite credible as a seasoned detective determined to find his target. These characters are presented with what could be an engaging conflict of two men on the same side of the law who have different approaches to doing their duties and could clash with one another on their investigation. Washington’s character, Joe Deacon, carries a natural likability to him but holds a conflicting work history that is one sign of how rougher he can be in his job, and Malek as Jim Baxter is the type of detective who has a decent enough reputation and is prone to take more calculated and calmer steps to finding criminals.
The problem is that, despite their clear differences in personalities and great acting from the talented people playing them, these characters never have any moments of genuine debate or intensity between them, and what they discover in their investigation isn’t that interesting or even shocking, either, aside from seeing the victims that the killer has left behind. Much like Hancock’s previous movie, “The Highwaymen” “Little Things” is a movie led by two main actors who have done great work before but don’t have much to do or work off of from a script that simply shows them traveling from one spot to another without anything of fascinating or different value to explore. Their chemistry is okay, but there’s nothing else that happens that makes the audience crave to see them work together or even fight one another in this ho-hum investigation.
Even the prime suspect, Albert Sparma (played by Jared Leto), doesn’t have that much going for him in terms of characterization. Leto plays this character well enough by providing a vicious, almost blank gaze to those who try to question him and an unsettlingly detached demeanor when he’s asked about the victims in the case. Yet, there’s nothing else about him that makes him terrifying or anything about his personality or what he does that makes him memorable or stand out from any other prime suspect that many have seen in a hardboiled serial killer film. He’s just some random guy who acts off and is at the front of an investigation for who the killer could possibly be, but he’s nowhere even close to being unsettling as, say, Buffalo Bill or disturbing as the killer of “Seven” is.
The mystery itself, as aforementioned, isn’t that interesting, either, with the detectives traveling from one spot to another and occasionally finding one or two clues, but there are not unique witnesses to have discussions with, along the way, and, while the murderer’s crimes are awful, there’s nothing else from the investigation itself that makes it stick with your memory or makes this serial killer stand out from other unpleasant nutcases that one would find in better mysteries. It also doesn’t help that this movie runs into so many cliched lines and moments, too. Early in the movie, the head police chief tells Washington the overused statement that he’s the only person who can do this job that nobody else can. Aside from what I’m mentioned earlier, Malek’s character has the typical nice-looking wife and kids and the expected personality of someone who does his job in the law well but doesn’t connect wonderfully with others. And, there’s an actual moment where Leto shares one of the most cliched lines that a villain can give in a movie with his opponent. That line would be, “You and I are much more alike than you think.”
Probably, one of the biggest missed opportunities is the lack of motivation or drive for the investigation itself. Yes, Malek has two daughters of her own, and that could explain a bit why he wants to find this creep who killed the women in this movie so badly, but that motivation isn’t built up very much aside from showing the detective with his kids for one or two scenes, and that’s it. That still leaves the more confusing question as to why Denzel is so gung-ho on this case and his job, in general. The audience gradually finds out about events that try to develop more insight to Denzel’s tormented demeanor as a cop, but there’s no visible reason why he’s this dead-set in finding this killer or any of the other previous boogeymen and creeps from his past history on the job. He’s just obsessive for the sake of the movie wanting him to be obsessive, and that’s it.
In fact, there’s nothing much about this character’s personality, in general, that makes the audience want to see what he does for his job in his investigation. Compare that with a few (much more memorable and intriguing) characters from better mysteries. Detective Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” has a ferocious sinks-his-teeth-and-doesn’t-let-go approach to his job as well, but he also has a sense of humor and funny sense of frustration that makes others want to see how he gets his target. Jake Gylenhaall from “Seven” plays an everyman cartoonist who loves puzzle and gets so obsessed with trying to solve the riddle of who the Zodiac Killer is that he loses himself to a rather devastating and even dangerous extent. His situation, explored through great and disturbing detail in that movie, is reminiscent of what happens when someone can lose himself too much to obsessing over a person or topic, and it causes him and the mystery itself to become incredibly engaging because of that. Aside from wondering why Denzel hasn’t been promoted for so many years and his occasional charm, there’s nothing else about his character’s personality or drive here that makes one want to see what he or the other detective do in their investigation.
The only thing that remotely stood out a little bit was Thomas Newman’s score for the movie. Newman is an incredible talent who has worked on a few of Hancock’s movies as of recent, and he utilizes those strings and his piano to great effect to help build a heavy amount of atmosphere for several scenes. He creates a nice balance of setting up both calming and eerie moments with his music, and it’s still nice to listen to. It’s just a shame that such a lovely soundtrack didn’t come from a better movie.
“The Little Things” is, by no means, the worst investigation/serial killer movie ever made. There is potential from what we see from the solid acting and the script attempting to build some interesting characters with its leading men and what we do learn about them and their separate personalities. Hancock proves that he can still shoot a scene well, make it look great, and bring a great sense of scale and vision to it. With a more unique mystery to follow and deeper digging into its heroes and its prime suspect, this movie could’ve possibly been something different, if not great, to behold. As it is, it’s just a forgettable murder mystery that has good talents behind him and trying their best with material that’s rather weak and bare but not completely shining through. It’s nothing awful, but it’s also nothing that will make the viewer on the sidelines who is craving a deeper, more intense story want to follow this particular mystery that much any time soon.