"The Little Things" Review
The serial killer genre once was the biggest attraction at the cinema. The Silence of the Lambs (winner of Best Picture), Se7en and American Psycho ruled the box office and were made on big budgets with big stars. With prestige television shows like True Detective and Mindhunter taking up space in the genre, films shifted towards low budgets and horror, which can be seen in Saw and the rebooted Halloween franchise. As one of the first cinematic releases of 2021, Warner Brothers is offering to take us back with The Little Things.
Our story opens in 1990 Los Angeles as disgraced police detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) returns to his old precinct. Immediately, he’s sucked into a developing case led by young hotshot Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) that contains similar patterns to the case that destroyed his career many years ago. Young women are being followed to their homes and then stabbed to death by a sadistic killer. The prime suspect is a grimy crime buff named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Sparma may look and talk the part of a killer, but there’s no evidence to link him to the murders. In order to stop the killings they suspect he’ll do, Deacon and Baxter race against the clock to gather evidence in a city ravaged by fear.
There’s a line in the trailer, and also in the movie, that has stuck with me. At one point Deacon says that “it’s the little things that rip you apart and it’s the little things that get you caught”.
While he’s describing how to cover up a murder, those same words can be said about making a movie. It’s the little things like character development, an engaging plot, and a satisfying ending that can rip apart this type of movie. These are the little, or in this case, big things that hold The Little Things back from reaching the heights of its predecessors. Writer/director John Lee Hancock, who’s had an average career with films such as The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks is the one to blame for this hollowness.
Hancock, for the most part, has written and directed his films, which signifies a certain amount of uniqueness. Similar to Denzel’s quote, I was also struck with the question of what exactly is a John Lee Hancock film? That question can be answered for many writer/directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, or Kevin Smith. But for Hancock, there isn’t something special he brings to the table. He doesn’t have a style or any original substance. His films are no different than the usual made-by-committee studio fodder.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, he does bring above-average craftsmanship with cinematography and can carry a tense mood for most of the picture. But he still makes the unforgivable sin of delivering a shockingly underwhelming ending to a whodunit mystery.
Hancock’s missteps also bleed into the central performances. As one of the best actors of a generation, Denzel Washington is incapable of doing wrong, which is why I’m only partially blaming him for his work here. There is a property in mathematics that stipulates that the product of any number multiplied by zero is zero. So, in the film’s case, with the character of Joe Deacon having zero-depth, the amount of work Denzel puts into his performance does not matter. He must have known this fact on set as he seems to be on autopilot and just doing a job for a paycheck.
While Denzel knows he’s too good for this material, Rami Malek proves he isn’t good enough. His performance here is inconsistent, leaning too hard on the eccentricities and genre tropes of the rookie cop who hasn’t tasted defeat yet. His Oscar win in 2018 for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody is looking worse with each subsequent role.
As Sparma, Jared Leto is his best in years, even though that is an incredibly low bar since he’s been nothing short of embarrassing since his 2013 Oscar win. Leto is fully hamming it up with his long greasy hair, odd mannerisms, and overall creepy demeanor. It may not be the most nuanced performance, but it sure is the most entertaining, which is worth something in this case.
While The Little Things may amount to little, it’s still a harmless return to the bigger budget serial killer dramas of yesteryear. In a time of year when there are fewer new releases, easy entertainment isn’t the worst thing in the world.