On paper the new psychological crime thriller “The Little Things” has all the ingredients for something special. It has Denzel Washington playing a deputy sheriff who arrives in Los Angeles to help hunt down a cunning serial killer. A supporting cast topped with fellow Academy Award winners Rami Malek and Jared Leto. A dark and moody David Fincher “Manhunter” vibe. And music by fifteen-time Oscar nominated composer James Horner. But having the best ingredients doesn’t guarantee a tasty dish.
“The Little Things” reunites director John Lee Hancock with Newman, cinematographer John Schwartzman and editor Robert Frazen. The four previously worked together on 2019’s underrated period crime drama “The Highwayman”. The two movies are similar in that both are character-centered slow burns. But “The Little Things” proudly embraces its gritty neo-noir flavor while leaving the impression that the film could have been plucked right out of the early 1990’s, back when crime thrillers were all the rave.
Speaking of the early 90’s, the story (written by Hancock) is set in 1990 and begins with an effective mood-setting prologue. A young woman drives down a rural highway late at night singing along with the B-52’s blaring on her radio. Suddenly another car quickly approaches, terrorizing her for the next four minutes and giving us a good sense of what to expect in terms of look and tone. Schwartzman’s use of darkness and light along with Newman’s slyly menacing score creates at atmosphere soaked in dread. It’s a good way to kick things off.
We’re then introduced to Washington’s Joe “Deke” Deacon. He’s a Kern County Deputy Sheriff who comes from a long line of tortured big screen law enforcement officers. His particular sins of the past still haunt him, lingering in his mind but out of our sight for most of film. They trace back to his days as a Los Angeles homicide detective and slowly comes into focus after he’s sent to LA by his Captain to retrieve evidence from his old department. There Deke is greeted with cold shoulders, some not-so-subtle jabs, and a general sense of ‘you’re not welcome here’. There’s clearly some history and hard feelings.
Before returning home Deke meets Sergeant Jimmy Baxter (Malek), a young but capable detective heading the homicide department. Baxter is described by others as “a good cop” and a family man from The Valley. He’s also the lead investigator on a stalled serial killer case. With four bodies and no suspects he’s facing mounting pressure from both the press and the public. When Baxter is called to a new crime scene that could be linked to the serial killings he invites Deke to come along. “Maybe you can even give me a few pointers.”
Hancock wastes no time steering away from the territorial chest-pounding and ‘my way vs. your way‘ storyline. You know, the one where the outsider from another jurisdiction comes in and clashes with the officer in charge only to win his or her trust and friendship over time. It’s been done countless times before. Here there is some early distrust (and for good reason) but not a lot of wrangling. Instead we get two cops who can actually work together despite one’s stress and the other’s baggage. For Baxter the pressure is weighing on him as is the fear of losing the case to the Feds. For Deke, it doesn’t take a lot of sniffing around to see it’s much more personal for him. He knows the routine, understands the obsession, and is well acquainted with the pitfalls.
All of this falls in line with one of Hancock’s biggest interests – exploring the minds of the cops more than getting into the mind of the killer. The film uses a lot of the genre’s dressing to explore how homicide investigation can consume an officer, grind them down, put them on edge, and even lead to a darker side of policing. It’s something Deke understands all too well. And it only intensifies when Leto shows up playing an eccentric loner and neighborhood repairman; a game-playing true-crime enthusiast who quickly becomes the prime suspect.
While some of the performances work better than others, they get the job done. From the subdued yet effortlessly convincing Washington to the stiff and mumbly Malek to the genuinely creepy and cryptic Leto. The patient slow rhythms of the storytelling may disappoint the action-starved, but they’re well-suited for this type of absorbing character study masked as a throwback crime flick from the 90’s. And instead of ending with the predictable iconic pop of something like “Se7en” or “Silence of the Lambs”, Hancock goes the subversive morally thorny route, looking at his character’s humanity through a lens of grace and critique. It’s a smart and satisfying choice. “The Little Things” opens January 29th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
VERDICT – 4 STARS