The Little Things (2021)
Written & Directed by John Lee Hancock
Noir is a genre that can be better than anything else when done right but can crash and burn miserably when all the elements fail to come together. The Little Things doesn’t get noir right. It certainly has some great aspects, but it sputters out when it comes time to put everything together. If this had been a purely theatrical release, I would have skipped it, but because it was offered on HBO Max, I was willing to give it a try. The trailer is intriguing enough and provides a hint of a good mystery with some brooding protagonists. Yet, when I saw Jared Leto come on the screen, I had to worry if it would prove to be a disaster.
In 1990, Kern County deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent to Los Angeles to retrieve forensic evidence for a case. Deacon is a former detective from L.A. who was ruined over a serial killer case years ago. His return to the sheriff’s department precinct is noted by former colleagues and an up and coming new detective, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek). Baxter is hunting down a killer who has left three bodies in his wake so far. A woman goes missing while out jogging one night, and Baxter is sure she’s yet another victim yet to be found. Deacon tries to go about his business but can’t help but get involved in the case. He even manages to discover a potential killer in the form of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a repairman in the neighborhood of a victim. But, it becomes clear both men are more and more clouded by their obsession over solving the crime than looking at what is happening around them.
I think there is a great movie embedded with the parts of The Little Things. It is pretty disappointing then that the picture doesn’t seem to know how to get beyond cliches. This movie feels hugely dated, likely because Hancock completed the script twenty-five years ago, and it has sat unmade since. Everything that happens feels appropriately noirish, but there’s never the surprise or twist you expect from the picture. Even when the movie thinks it’s shocking you, it doesn’t. If you have familiarity with this genre, you’re either going to feel the plot beats and see exactly where the picture is going, or you’ll be unpleasantly disoriented by some jarring editing choices. I was incredibly shocked at how bad the editing in this movie is with cuts that are way too quick and don’t give the viewer time to establish things.
Washington and Malek aren’t bad; they give good performances. Washington especially is an interesting character, though a tad cliche. The grizzled, jaded veteran is always a fun archetype to follow in noir, and it’s not diminished here. Jared Leto is the ugly blemish in this production. I don’t know if it was guidance from the director or acting choices made by Leto, but he makes Parma so eye-rollingly annoying. I get what he was going for, but he hams it up to the degree that I never saw Parma as a threat. He’s so obnoxious, especially during the interrogation scene, which is meant to be some boiling over of tension. I fail to see why Leto continues to be cast in important roles in movies. He is terrible, and it feels like I’m being gaslit when I see him continually showing up. If someone could explain his appeal to me, I am all ears.
There’s a lot of attempts to have moments in the picture that are meant as twists. Instead of focusing on plotting things out for a story that ends in what could be considered a dead-end, more time was devoted to character development. There is some of that, but the picture definitely needed more. You start to feel like the script is cribbing a bit from Seven, but that is a dangerous movie to copy. Kevin Williamson’s script for Seven is so pitch-perfect that you had better brings something new if you try to copy parts of it. The Little Things feels like Seven if it had been made toothless by studio executives.
While I’m making comparisons to other noir media, this movie’s third act felt a lot like True Detective Season One. It begins to shift away from the plot and go into a darker psychological arena. But by then, the story has stumbled around so much it’s hard to really care. I like that the story ends on a bleak note surrounded by unanswered questions, but it could have gotten there and delivered that finale so much better. If you are in the mood for a standard potboiler and have HBO Max, then, by all means, give this watch. I wouldn’t recommend going to the theater to see it; it’s definitely not a film worth getting COVID over. If you saw any of the noir revival movies of the 1990s, then you’ve already been here before. If you want to watch something that won’t surprise you and delivers everything, you would expect The Little Things has that going for it.