Denzel Washington, Rami Malek headline a dated, dreary thriller

By Steve Pulaski

Without even knowing that John Lee Hancock’s screenplay The Little Things was first drafted in the 1990s, you probably could’ve made that assumption upon watching it. This was a film set to be released during a time when police procedurals dominated the multiplex alongside erotic thrillers. Television has more-or-less become home to this type of framework, be it network shows such as Chicago P.D., or acclaimed premium cable offerings like True Detective. Yet even if you fancy yourself a fan of this genre, there’s desperately little in The Little Things that will keep you engaged.

The plot revolves around Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), a disgraced former L.A. cop confined to working in the more rural Kern County as a sheriff. Set in the 1990 for no other reason than “just because,” “Deke,” as he’s known, gets wind of an area serial killer, who has emerged with an alarming body-count. With his personal life in shambles, Deke has little else to do but latch onto this case. The issue is there’s a new man taking charge: his replacement, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody), a fresh-faced family-man who might be headed down the same route as Deke if he isn’t careful.

Witnesses are practically as nonexistent as leads themselves, but a grungy loner named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) turns up as the prime suspect. Sparma enjoys playing games with cops despite claiming to be well-versed in the realm of law, which makes him try the patience of Deke and Jim, only mounting their suspicions. It doesn’t take very long for “The Little Things” to show you that it isn’t necessarily about whether or not Sparma is the culprit nor the motive behind the murders.

The first act is all about positing the emotionally compromised veteran in Deke with the chiseled, new-school look and attitude of his successor in Jim. It echoes Se7en — which has proven to be the primary point-of-comparison — in this duality. By the third act, however, it becomes abundantly clear that the murder-mystery is a MacGuffin for psychological trauma. But rather than making that angle intriguing, the film wastes a lot of our time getting us wrapped up in the central murders that ending on a cryptic note feels especially ludicrous. The idea that the mental health of police officers would be corrupted by one too many brushes with fate or selfish fabrications is a riveting idea…if we’re talking a 1990s potboiler. In 2021, it’s a laughably obvious observation. But Hancock is serious as he expects us to look onto this slowburn retread as something other than a pretentious display of formula.

Naturally, a film like this could be somewhat rescued by virtue of the performances. After all, we have a whopping three Oscar winners at the helm. Sadly so, Denzel appears as if he’s sleepwalking through most of this, yet his cadence feels more convincing than his counterparts. Malek’s Jim feels too broadly conceived, yet delivers in some of the later scenes as his character grows more disconnected. Most egregious is Jared Leto as a twitchy caricature of the could-be-killer. Something about Leto as of late screams he’s trying too hard when immersing himself in a role. It reminds you what a treasure someone like Joaquin Phoenix is and continues to be with each passing movie.

On a final odd note: The Little Things makes religion such a focal point for both Deke and Jim. Multiple times is Jim referred to as a man of God, and more than one instance has Deke driving and staring at the Hollywood Cross. Neither serve the plot in a meaningful way. I kept waiting for a spiritual reckoning of some kind, but it was the equivalent of waiting for a real-life miracle.

Maybe it’s the commendable accessibility of The Little Things being available to stream on HBO Max for a few weeks in conjunction with its theatrical release that made this one feel like more of a mainstream talking point. Anyone who goes to the theater with any regularity knows what it is, however: your typical throwaway January movie, only this time with a trio of actors you hate to see waste their time and good energy on something so soulless.

NOTE: The Little Things will be available to stream on HBO Max for 31 days, and is presently in theaters in states where moviegoing is permitted.

Steve’s Grade: D+