Writer-director John Lee Hancock wrote The Little Things between 1992 and 1993, not long after serial killer films became a popular commodity with the success of The Silence of the Lambs, but before David Fincher’s Se7en in 1995. In fact, the detective story of The Little Things is set in 1990, and it certainly feels like it could have been released during that period with no changes. But unfortunately, The Little Things isn’t a throwback to the crime thrillers of the ‘90s, it’s an oblivious mystery that seems ignorant that its audience has already seen thirty years of these clichés.
Denzel Washington – a reliable star of such past ‘90s detective films as The Bone Collector and Virtuosity – plays Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon, who used to work for the LAPD, but left after a particularly bad case that also caused the end of his marriage and gave him a heart attack. Deacon now works in Kern County, solving smaller mysteries, like who keeps breaking the lights out of the letter ‘G’ at the Black Angus steakhouse. Deacon returns to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence, where he immediately shunned by almost everyone he runs to at his old police department.
There’s a negative air that looms around Deacon, one that even newer recruits are aware of. Knowing Deacon’s background, LAPD detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) invites Deacon to come check out a murder scene with him and learn some of his expertise. This return to murder investigation reminds Deacon of the crime that drove him out of town in the first place, as Deacon decides to stay in town for a few days to help Baxter solve what is quickly becoming a string of murders.
The Little Things is bolstered by three performances from three Oscar-winning actors. Denzel Washington knows how to boost a project like this with a quiet and determined intensity. Washington is trying desperately to bring some emotion and depth to this boilerplate mystery, and he succeeds where the screenplay fails.
Meanwhile, Rami Malek – in his first major role since Bohemian Rhapsody – is cold and responsive as Baxter. Much of the time, Malek is partnered with Washington, and he can’t hold his own. While Washington can sit quietly and the audience can see everything the character is working through simply through the performance. Malek tries this same approach, but with no depth, just emptiness behind the eyes. Malek plays Baxter with a similar detachment he brought to Mr. Robot, and while it worked for that series, it doesn’t work at all here.
But the surprise star of The Little Things is, strangely, Jared Leto. Playing Albert Sparma, the unusual appliance repairman that both Deacon and Baxter believe to be the killer, Leto is able to embrace his inherent weirdness. Leto looks chunky in his body, yet sallow and gaunt in his face. Sparma is greasy, walks with an unexplained limp, and looks so grody, one can easily imagine what he smells like.
Once Sparma knows that he is the main suspect, his plan of action is to make this a game that only he is playing. Sparma is a crime buff, which is obvious far before a copy of Helter Skelter is seen in his apartment, so he knows exactly how to play Deacon and Baxter to his whims. If The Little Things has a positive, it’s that it allows Leto to go as weird as he wants to, and have fun in a film full of characters who have no time to do anything but brood.
Yet even if Hancock’s story had come out in the early ‘90s, The Little Things would still be an exercise in banality and already well-worn formulas. Since writing The Little Things, Hancock has become the director of true stories like The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder, none of which illicit any idea that Hancock would be a solid choice to direct a crime thriller. In fact, Hancock isn’t a right fit for this type of story, which plods along, only receiving a slight jolt of excitement when the film introduces Leto’s Sparma, setting the real story into motion.
But Hancock doesn’t know how to handle tone. He wants Sparma to come off as menacing, but he’s nothing more than a gross manipulator. Malek’s Baxter should be undergoing a spiritual crisis of sorts, but instead, he’s a silent, empty character. The dynamic between Baxter and Deacon should illicit a reminder of old versus new ways of handling this type of detective work, but it all falls flat. The Little Things seems like it was culled together from far better thrillers, like Se7en, Prisoners, and Zodiac, but without the dread, fear, or uncertainty that made those films so great.
Yet Hancock – both in his screenplay and directing – are so ham-fisted and overt. For example, at one point Deacon asks Baxter what was the last thing one of the serial killer’s victims ate. Soon after Baxter responds “roast beef,” Hancock shows Sparma walking into a store with a gigantic sign outside that says “ROAST BEEF.” Subtlety is not this film’s strong suit, especially in the film’s ending. Hancock seems to want to leave this story ambiguous, but doesn’t have the guts to leave some questions unanswered. Hancock wants to have his roast beef and eat it too.
Throughout The Little Things Deacon tells Baxter, “It’s the little things that rip you apart. It’s the little things that get you caught.” But for Hancock, it’s both the little and the big things that the writer-director can’t effectively handle to make this anything other than a pastiche of worn-out formulas.