There’s a certain magic to casting. Get the right actors into your movie and it can suddenly become an Oscar contender. That seems to be WB’s strategy with The Little Things. The film stars Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto in a crime thriller that they’re pushing in the awards season efforts. With that cast, it’s easy to have high hopes for a film that otherwise might look pretty standard.
And The Little Things is pretty standard. This is probably one of the more basic crime thrillers to release from a major studio in years, despite its mostly failed attempts to do something different. Think of Seven but without any of the creativity — a stellar cast given almost nothing to do. The casting for this film is a thin veneer over a movie that otherwise would have come and gone with little notice.
Also, it has Jared Leto so it’s extra annoying.
The Little Things
Director: John Lee Hancock
Release Date: January 29, 2021 (Theatrical and HBO Max)
As one of the first films to land in theaters and HBO Max under WarnerMedia’s new day-and-date release strategy you would think that the company would want it to be something special. Honestly, they desperately do. The film screams of gritty crime Oscar-bait as we open on small-town police deputy Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) as he’s told to go pick up some evidence in LA. He’s not too keen on the task and we soon find out that he use to be a detective in LA before something bad happened. He’s soon pulled into a serial killer case by young detective Sgt. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and the pair hone in on a possible suspect in Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a truly creepy loner who starts leading them on a goose chase.
There’s an interesting thrust to the film that tries to walk a delicate line between answering if Sparma is actually the killer or not, making a lot of the case more about these two cops and their desperation to arrest someone than any actual crime-solving. However, the movie can’t walk that line for a variety of reasons. The film isn’t constructed well enough to keep that tension up, with Deke’s dark secret and Sgt. Baxter’s unfurling sanity created in a muddled way that never truly sells the point. Sparma, played with Leto with his usual lack of subtlety or creativity, lacks any credibility as an innocent man so the theoretically challenging film simply falls into cliches as the two cops mostly bungle their way to “solving” the case.
Hancock seems to have no idea how to construct the film into something interesting, cutting the movie up into confusing segments and relying on hard-to-follow exposition to define the plot. It leaves you scratching your head in confusion instead of rubbing your chin as you try to puzzle out the mystery’s solution. The film just feels messy, languishing in moments it shouldn’t while ripping through plot points that would help it not only make sense but also build out its themes. It’s strange because Hancock is actually quite good at emotionally paced films, including his last two efforts The Highwaymen and The Founder.
And then there is the title of the film. Just why this movie is called The Little Things, words repeated in the film itself multiple times, is really unclear. Washington’s character remarks often that it is the little things that help to solve a case or that detectives get hung up and can drive them crazy but its only ever told, not shown. The film’s plot and themes never rest on any “little things” aside from one glaringly obvious McGuffin that’s hardly actually little. While the title of a film isn’t all that important most of the time, in this case, it’s like writing a thesis statement on one subject and then completely ignoring it for your entire paper. It is especially ironic because the movie’s muddled story is so because it ignores the little things itself.
And that fantastic cast? They seem to not be too interested. Washington never seems able to find his character, sometimes stammering through sentences and at others being as cool and confident as The Equalizer portrayed him. There’s obviously supposed to be some layer of falsehood to the bumbling deputy he first appears to be but this feels more like lazy acting than layered introspection. Malek seems to want to be in the film a bit more but his character is never given the chance to fully develop, resulting in what feels like a rushed unraveling as the film tumbles towards its conclusion. Leto’s character might have been the film’s saving grace but he can’t play it smart enough to walk the line between weirdo and serial killer and the end result makes the film even messier.
The Little Things just can’t get out of its own way and, despite a cast that should elevate it, simply sinks into the mire. It’s not incompetently made but its flaws shine through at almost every level. This seems to be a growing trend this year as interesting ideas get squashed under crummy execution. Hopefully, it’s not a little thing that turns into something big.