Warner Bros. and HBO’s new neo-noir crime thriller “The Little Things” has long been a passion project of writer-director John Lee Hancock. First conceptualized in 1993 the film has rotated through several directors including Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and Danny DeVito before Hancock decided to direct the movie himself. The story focuses on a detective named Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and a former detective turned Deputy Sheriff named Deke (Denzel Washington) who attempt to hunt down a killer in 1990 L.A. settling on a strange man named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) as their primary suspect. “The Little Things” is an interesting throwback to cop thriller and serial killer movies of old with fine atmosphere and performances, but a lack of substance and genuine thrills to live up to the lofty expectations and its long stay in development hell. What results is a nice reminder of a long-lost genre that feels more like a product of the decade when it was originally conceived and than a great piece of modern cinema.
“The Little Things” isn’t a bad movie in my opinion, but it does feel terribly dated and derivative. There are many elements I enjoyed, but it lives up to its own name by focusing more on the larger elements and forsaking the smaller details and touches needed to create a truly engaging thriller for a modern audience. At its core this thriller is a neat love letter to police procedurals of old and finely embraces retired clichés that fans of dark, serial killer-driven films like “Seven” and “American Psycho” utilized to perfection. The problem is these clichés feel really outdated making for a slow burn that leads the audience towards a seemingly obvious but eventually ambiguous result by upping the tension as the officers get closer to their objective but lacking that special touch of inspiration required to pull off such a narrative. We’re told right from the start that Leto’s Sparma is going to be the main suspect and while we get hints of a hidden motivation behind Deputy Sheriff Deke’s obsession with the case we’re either given everything we need to know way too early or too late to make “The Little Things” and engaging experience as a whole. I found it really hard to get invested in the outcome when the run time felt wasted more on forced tension and nowhere plot lines and less on the small details that could have made this movie so much more enjoyable. We learn almost nothing unique about Sparma, learn the hidden demons of Deke only in the final act and barely get any insight into who Detective Baxter is beyond being a family man and young detective looking for justice. It’s hard to expect anything unique when you’re literally given all the same stuff that made the entire genre so popular for over ten years almost as if working off a book of must-haves to satisfy a fanbase that has either moved on or is looking for something fresh. Sure, some will appreciate the familiarity of it all but to me it simply reminded me how many better movies of this type are out there.
While the story itself is a hard sell, the atmosphere, style and performances are really what’s worth seeing. Jared Leto might be a divisive actor but his turn as Albert Sparma, an enigmatic man who may or may not be the one the officers are searching for, makes for a fun sort-of-villain who is either the smartest or dumbest man in the room and thankfully we never truly get an answer to that although again a little more insight into who he really is could have made him an even more interesting antagonist. Remi Malek and Denzel Washington work well off of each other as the young detective looking for justice and the jaded old soon-to-be-retiree trying to find closure from a case he was unable to solve. What’s interesting, and I’m far from the only one to make this comparison, is the three characters are very reminiscent of the aforementioned “Seven” with the young officer, aged detective and mysterious villain who taunts them to no end. Sadly, while all three actors turn in predictably great performances they fail to bring the same chemistry and investment as the actors in that prior film which arguable perfected all the clichés present in “The Little Things”. The dark tone and style of the film is a constant reminder that this isn’t a happy-ending kind of movie, but again “Seven” and other movies did it better which adds up to “The Little Things” feeling more like a loving homage to a bygone era of police-versus-serial-killers cinema and less like a modern work of art all its own. It’s people looking for that familiarity that will enjoy “The Little Things” the most.
That’s pretty much all I have to say really. There’s not much else I can add in about “The Little Things” other than it was kind of boring in its second act while the first and third acts are where it proves to be the most gripping. In the end this is a movie that kind of lives and falls by its own name. The title comes from a line where Washington tell Malek’s character that it is the little things that will get you in the end. That rings true with this movie which tries to be like every other serial killer thriller from the 90s but lacks a certain commitment to its smaller details making it feel more like a product of a bygone era and a loving tribute to an outdated genre than a genuinely engaging modern crime thriller and thus it feels like a product of the times decades too late. For fans of 90s cinema it will be a nice throwback and, to its credit, “The Little Things” does utilize its clichés and awesome cast nicely, just not nicely enough to escape its familiarity and the boredom that comes with it.