For those wishing for a spiritual sequel to the underrated 1998 film Fallen, The Little Things is a wish granted. The film feels designed for fans of ’90s potboilers like Seven, which is less surprising once you know the script was written around the same period. (Hancock wrote the script in 1993.) Unfortunately, a script born of that decade doesn’t account for the ways that cop procedurals have and needed to change. Denzel Washington won an Academy Award playing a sleazy cop who dealt justice as he saw fit in Training Day, but that film came out in 2001. Twenty years later, a story where cops do whatever they want without consequences would be the point of the film. But director John Lee Hancock won’t pursue that discourse.
We admire dedication in detectives, but obsession is the mark of an officer who should let go. Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) is one such cop. He is clearly haunted by his baggage, but not willing to give up his badge. Originally sent to L.A. to gather evidence, Sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) redirects Deke into working a serial killer case. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” Baxter muses, but Deke’s quick retort says it all. “You still gotta catch them, right?” Deke’s instincts impress Baxter, but as the old vet gets closer to the case, parallels to his past threaten to let a killer continue terrorizing L.A.
Enter Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). A greasy, bug-eyed loner, Sparma fits the profile of a serial killer. Making matters worse, Sparma doesn’t even try to conceal his predilections for violence against women. Once inside an interrogation room, Sparma practically begs for a beating. He does everything to provoke Deke into violence. Leto leapfrogs his Suicide Squad role in terms of repellent behaviour and appearance. He offers a performance so method that one can practically smell him from the screen. Though a despicable villain keeps audiences invested in the procedural, Leto didn’t need the pineapple glazing on his hammy performance. He overacts by leaps and bounds, effectively couching Washington and Malek as sleepwalkers.
The Little Things won’t dispel any complaints about John Lee Hancock. He nails the perfunctory notes of filmmaking, but there’s no flow to the proceedings or any flourishes to speak. Setting the film back two decades helps, but any commentary on the relationship between cops and the law should’ve seen scrutiny. Given BLM’s rise and other investigations into police brutality in 2020, suggesting cops can kill if they feel they’re right is exceedingly naïve—if not dangerous.
The Little Things hopes to recreate Seven‘s success, and it does in tone, but the rapport between Washington and Malek falters. It’s missing that connection that Morgan Freeman had with Brad Pitt. Deke’s well of trauma runs deep, and that makes him compelling, yet Malek plays Baxter too sanitized. He’s too much of a cipher, as if Baxter just waits for Deke to do his job for him. For three decorated actors like Washington, Malek, and Leto, The Little Things should be more compelling than it is. However, the film feels more like an acting exercise than a drama, offering nothing different until a tonal shift at the end. Which begs the question: if a film finds inspiration in the last fifteen minutes, does that compensate for the lackluster beginning?
I liken it to a comfort watch you’d pick up with on late-night cable. There’s nothing challenging present , just the episodic developments of catching a serial killer. For The Little Things’ flaws, pacing isn’t one of them; it just keeps moving on. HBO Max subscribers (or PVOD viewers in Canada) will give it a go on a Saturday night, although anyone else looking to rent the film might look elsewhere. Washington is still gamely committed, but it’s clear that the material didn’t strike a chord. Without his presence, The Little Things likely wouldn’t have received a release at all.
The Little Things opens in select Canadian theatres and on PVOD Jan. 29 and lands on HBO Max in the USA that day.