When we meet John “Deke” Deacon in writer-director John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things,” he is working as a patrol deputy in part of California’s Central Valley. We soon learn that he took that job after leaving Los Angeles, where he had worked homicide. It is a classic sort of a setup – cop leaves the big city after a case/incident/whatever that he just couldn’t shake, fate then forces him back to his old life and from there… well, that’s the movie, isn’t it?
There is a certain rhythm to such a film and “The Little Things” largely—and successfully—plays into it. We see horrible crime scenes both in the present (which, in this case, is 1990) and via flashback, the past. We see the aftermath of the destruction such incidents wreak on the lives of those involved. We, for lack of a better analogy, stare into the dark abyss that lies at the heart of some individuals. It doesn’t matter whether that blackness has been there since they were born, or if it is something happened to them along the way, it is there and that’s what is meant to keep the audience up at night.
Does Hancock’s film work in that regard? I don’t know if it does, at least not fully. It certainly makes you think and wonder and contemplate, if only for a little while, but there are better examples of the genre.
That said, “The Little Things” is wonderfully, incredibly, perfectly atmospheric. There’s a darkness to the film—part visuals, part story, part acting—that really takes hold of the audience as it unfolds.
There at the center of everything is Deke, played to perfection by Denzel Washington. Once he’s back in L.A., Deke finds himself forming an uneasy relationship with an up-and-coming homicide detective, a guy who is making a name for himself and doesn’t mind the limelight, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek).
Much of the movie centers on this relationship. Baxter is skeptical of Deke, but when everyone tells Baxter that whatever Deke’s other issues may be, he’s a great detective, Baxter invites him to a crime scene that appears to be the work of a serial killer Baxter’s tracking. Deke goes along. Darkness ensues.
In some respects “The Little Things” might be thought of as a riff on a hard-boiled or noir detective story moved up 50 or 60 years, even if it does lack a femme fatale. Instead of this last, we get a handful of dead women (perhaps though that too is a staple of the genre).
Of course, this being 2021 and not the heyday of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, Hancock’s story is less concerned with the mystery and more concerned with the detectives. It isn’t just about their gritting their teeth and explaining how tough life is as they go on their way towards solving the crime, it is about showing just how difficult that life can get, even if that means the crime takes a backseat.
It works brilliantly on this level. Watching Baxter climb down from his high horse and morph into a younger version of Deke is tremendous and Malek is wonderful in his portrayal. Those who have not been previously convinced of Malek’s ability as an actor may very well find themselves in his corner from this time forward. Washington, as noted, is fantastic. Deke is world weary and angry and upset and scared and we get all of that with just a single look or two from Washington’s eyes.
Not as good as Malek and Washington is Jared Leto, who plays Albert Sparma, a man who becomes the chief suspect in the case. Although Leto has the appropriately disheveled look for the character, there’s constantly something comically mocking in the portrayal the actor offers. He is convincing, there can be no doubt about that, but the performance’s vaguely sickening levity (which is impressive) doesn’t match that of Malek or Washington. It is disquieting, as they are, but not as intriguing.
The supporting cast, which includes Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer, and Michael Hyatt, are quite successful and far closer to what Washington and Malek provide. That said, Hyatt and Morales are both underutilized, popping up only to disappear too suddenly and for too long. This gives the movie a disappointing, not-quite-paternalistic but not far off, feel as it’s male cops interacting with a male suspect and being haunted by the murder of multiple young women (who, naturally, are found nude). Adding to this sense, both Baxter’s wife (Isabel Arraiza) and Deke’s ex-wife (Judith Scott) function much more as representations of possible outcomes of a detective’s life and work as opposed to having their own identities.
Like a detective focusing too hard on a single suspect or single clue, it feels like the movie is so involved with its male leads that it excludes too much that would prove valuable.
It is a mistake and that is true even if it speaks well of other things Hancock and his cast have done, namely offering up an engrossing look at the (male) human psyche and the demons that lie within. Even where the characters are too flat, we are left intrigued by what we do see and find ourselves wanting (and deserving) more.
No, “The Little Things” may not keep you up at night after the tale ends, but it is a gripping story nonetheless. With more rounded, well-utilized, characters it might have been a film for the ages. Instead, it’s a more than worthwhile evening of HBO Max viewing.
photo credit: Warner Bros.
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