The Little Things: Review
Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto Star In A Surprisingly Decent Mid-tier Version Of ‘Se7en’
So much of writer-director John Lee Hancock’s psychological cop thriller, “The Little Things,” seems recognizable and pre-ordained on the surface. The drama offers the trope of a grizzled veteran cop (Denzel Washington) conflicting with a talented younger detective who’s made the grade (Rami Malek), the way they clash, break balls, their various obsessions, a haunted past, and a quirky, alleged serial killer (Jared Leto), not afraid to tease and taunt the police. But as the slow-burning, seemingly conventional picture unfolds and develops, it actually takes the viewer by surprise. Especially in its upending, pivoting-away-from-crime norms, morally ambiguous ending, Hancock’s picture reveals itself to have much more on its mind than expected, and becomes a thoughtful meditation on the rigors of police work and the psychic toll that it takes on the soul.
“The Little Things,” nonetheless is a compelling thriller with a resonant ending that subverts nearly all the traits and expectations of the cops-trying-to-catch-a-serial-killer drama. The film begins in 1990 when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) is sent to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles for what’s supposed to be a routine evidence-gathering assignment. Instead, the ghosts of his past are soon awoken, and he becomes embroiled in the hunt for a killer terrorizing the city, led by his old police department. Heading up the investigation is L.A. County Sheriff’s Homicide Department Sergeant Jim Baxter (Malek).
Baxter’s boss (Terry Kinney) wants nothing to do with Deke, hinting how the cop, living in a self-appointed exile North of the city, is damaged goods. Still, as much of Deke’s mysterious past taints him—why he left the police department suddenly five years earlier following a heart attack— his reputation precedes him, and Baxter, giving him shit, but impressed by his cop instincts, engages him unofficially for help. Soon, disturbing secrets of Deke’s past dredge up old echoes, and Baxter comes to realize, the killer they seek, is the same one the old-timer couldn’t catch five years prior. Obsession is part of the game— naturally, it’s the stock and trade of serial killer films and those that try and catch them— but, surprisingly, it’s not all Hancock’s picture focuses on.
“The Little Things” is fairly safe in its first act. Still, as the film teases out the damage Deke’s sustained on the job—to his former marriage, his health, his mental health, and more— a greater picture emerges about the cost of the job, the fixations that take hold, and lines that some men will cross to find justice. Hancock is something of a journeyman, but the craft of “The Little Things,” is impressive. It’s patient, deliberate, and features some striking night-time cinematography, all of which makes one forgive the more conservative elements of the script. Three Academy Award winners go toe-to-toe in the film, and while Washington is obviously the most towering of the trio, Malek and Leto definitely give as good as they get. Semi-amusingly, “The Little Things” is arguably a subtle-testosterone fest compared to most traditional cop dramas. Everyone is chewing the scenery, but trying to do so in the most low-key manner as possible, but it’s still discernable (I can’t help, but imagine scenarios where Malek and Leto are both in the mirror telling themselves, “You’re going to own this scene! Delicately though!”)
“The Little Things” may sag a little bit in the middle as the two detectives close in on Leto’s would-be killer, but there’s an ambiguity to him and their case that lends the movie some texture and nuance. Leto surely appears to be the killer, but there’s not a shred of evidence they can tie him to—and in the past, he’s confessed to crimes he clearly didn’t commit. Maybe this is part of the shrewd killer’s long-game plan to throw reasonable doubt into the mix, but it creates a scenario where the cops have to start crossing ethical and moral lines, which is where “The Little Things” becomes really interesting.
“It’s never over,” Deke says to himself, late at night, in a heightened fantastical moment where he sees all the ghosts of the women who have died on his watch, the crimes unsolved. It’s a seemingly questionable choice, that could really seem hackneyed and cheap, but Washington really sells the moment, and that’s all that matters. It’s clear Deke will never recover from their deaths, and this element of the movie and the burden that Washington’s character clearly carries is affecting and even soulfully melancholy (it is Denzel Washington, after all, and he carries the movie). And that’s what separates “The Little Things”—something Deke repeats, the devil’s in the details of detective work, but also in the imperceptive moments you’ll realize you’ll never get over—from most cops and killers movies is this film’s complete disinterest in the ideas of justice or even a crime. This is a film about a merciless job, the grizzly work and the price one will pay by doing it. The question is, how much will you let it consume you and rob you of your humanity?
Washington is really the walking dead and, more importantly, a lost soul. There will be no redemption for his character—something of a surprise in a movie like this—and in fact, he’ll only fall down the slippery slope of the moral boundaries he’s crossed further by the end of the picture. But there’s still hope for Baxter to learn from the mistakes Deke made, which is essentially the parting goodbye of “The Little Things”: don’t hold on to the angels, and try, if you can, get out of this brutal, unforgiving job as unscathed as you can. [B]
“The Little Things” arrives in theaters and HBO Max on January 29.