The Little Things Review: Great performances and an intriguing personal narrative outweigh familiarity and underwhelming thrills
The latest from director John Lee Hancock, best known for The Blindside and The Highwaymen, and the first film in Warner Bros.’ big theatrical and streaming same day lineup is full of big names but lacking in big thrills.
The cinematography from John Schwartzman and overall atmosphere built by Hancock’s direction, gives off big vibes of two David Fincher mystery masterpieces – Se7en and Zodiac. There’s dark moodiness to it that drives the mysterious nature of the film’s seedy 90’s Los Angeles setting. Every room you enter gives you these eerie feelings that make you tense and use of lighting and music to deliver good jolts. Even the film’s story of a seasoned detective named Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), who is haunted by a murder case he was unable to solve, helping recently appointed lead detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) catch a serial killer with the same M.O. as his unsolved case is reminiscent of those films. There’s even a strange man named Albert (Jared Leto) who relentlessly taunts Deke and Baxter and makes it seem like he has underlying motives. All of the elements are here for another thrill full of intriguing shocks and terror, but The Little Things can’t fully capitalize on it.
The one thing this film has going for it from start to finish is the great trio of performances we get from Leto, Malek, and Washington. Leto delivers a perfectly creepy and captivating performance that constantly makes you question if he is the mastermind behind it all or just simply wants to be. Whether you think he’s the killer or not, Leto continuously draws you in with the possibilities his performance presents. While it’s not a performance that will likely be anyone’s favorite amongst Malek’s incredible career thus far, he still brings his “A game” when it comes to The Little Things. He manages to create a connection for viewers to Baxter with his slow growing obsession with the case and the strong arc that is built for him within the story. The best of the best is really Washington as he continues to act to the top of his game. He brings an incredibly calculated, but damaged persona to Deke that makes him fascinating and the way the film fleshes out his inner demons is enhance by the times that Washington masks Deke’s blank, lifeless stare with his own brand of charm.
Where the film really splits is with its story since its attempts to create both a story about being haunted and racing against the clock to find a serial killer don’t create a conclusion that’s entirely satisfying. At its core, the parts of the narrative that deal with Deke dealing with parts of himself that can’t let go of the crime he couldn’t solve are great. They legitimately leave an impact on you and feel incredibly unique with Washington’s great performance. It’s even great how the film builds upon this through Baxter’s slow growing obsession with the case and how he becomes more and more like Deke in his efforts to find some kind of closure – even if it’s not really the answer. The way the film wraps all this up is one of the most emotional and saddening aspects of the film with how it shows why Deke failed and how Baxter is now in a worse place than Deke is. It’s a genuinely satisfying conclusion.
The same unfortunately can’t be said about the case the film is wrapped around in since it’s left kind of hanging at one point and creates similarities to Fincher’s works that it just doesn’t live up to. Those going into The Little Things hoping that they’re going to watch an engrossing murder case unfold are likely going to be disappointed with the pace and focus of the film. The overarching murder case honestly isn’t that interesting and doesn’t give enough thrills to keep you invested into it. This just makes the film’s slow, methodical pace nearly unbearable. Even worse is that the murder case just feels overly reminiscent of Se7en, Zodiac, and even Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and simply doesn’t balance having an engrossing case and study of human behavior.
The Little Things has plenty of great elements that make it work with Hancock’s direction and writing leading great performances and an intriguing narrative of being haunted and hurt but carries too much familiarity to greater thrillers and a sluggish serial killer narrative that weakens the overall experience.