Synopsis: A burnt-out deputy sheriff is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment and becomes embroiled in a crack LASD detective’s search for a killer who is terrorizing the city.
Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Chris Bauer, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Sheila Houlahan, John Harlan Kim, Tom Hughes, Jason James Richter, Stephanie Erb, Kerry O’Malley
Director: John Lee Hancock
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: During the recent long weekend I sat through nearly four hours of the mesmerizing documentary Night Stalker on Netflix which chronicled serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles and neighboring counties in the mid ‘80s. Here was proof positive of evil at its purest form, the killing of innocent people chosen at random with increasingly depraved brutality. Anyone that’s ever read up on serial killers (or seen the movie Copycat) knows at least a little about Ramirez but I hadn’t truly experienced the full-on assault of his crimes until Night Stalker came along. The fascination of the film for me wasn’t in the details of his actions, though, it was in the work of the dedicated detectives that called upon their resources, ingenuity, and plain old detective gut instinct to nab the predator.
This investigative work is always what draws me to these serial killer films and why I’ve been sad to see them fall by the wayside in recent years in favor of less complex plots that hinge more on luck than on genius. Where are the Clarice Starlings from The Silence of the Lambs in film today? Or a wise William Somerset from Se7en to take young recruits under their wing? Heck, even Andy Garcia’s troubled detective in the not so beloved Jennifer 8 actually takes the time to investigate the reddest of all herrings. (I love that movie, by the by). Even more than that, these are popular films that have entertainment value if generated with a modicum of competent thought, despite their often perilously dark subject matter. Yet they’ve become less prestige over time and more the kind of films that top level B-grade stars frequent…rarely attracting A-list talent. Plain and simple – we’ve been needing a movie like The Little Things to come around.
Writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) has delivered an agreeably formulaic but nonetheless efficiently crackerjack excursion back in time to 1990s Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow along in a puzzling mystery. An opening prologue applies just enough pressure to get the blood pumping but then withdraws for a time as introductions are made all around. After a health scare several years earlier, former L.A. detective Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has retreated to a quieter life of public service as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, two hours outside of Los Angeles. There’s a slight apprehension when he’s sent back to the big city to retrieve important evidence in a local case and we’ll find out why (but on Hancock’s slightly drawn-out timeline) after he runs into his old partner (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) and a medical examiner (Michael Hyatt, Nightcrawler), both of whom he shares a well-kept secret with.
Deke happens to arrive at an opportune time because his previous department could use an extra set of eyes to help find a killer targeting women. At first, lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) wants Deke far away from his case but once Baxter sees how the veteran lawman works, he realizes if there’s a key to catching the evil roaming the streets at night, Deke is holding it. After examining the latest murder scene and discovering new evidence, the men are threatened with losing the case with the impending arrival of the FBI. The two men combine their efforts in an attempt to flush out a criminal in hiding, eventually targeting a potential suspect (Jared Leto, Blade Runner 2049) who checks all the boxes to be the man they’re looking for but might also turn out to undo all the work they’ve done if he’s innocent.
Playing like a truncated season of True Detective, The Little Things doesn’t have the meat to fill out an five or six episode order on HBO but for a two hour movie that’s debuting on HBO Max, it’s a largely satisfying endeavor. It has the appropriate amount of thrill to it at the beginning but benefits from a heat that sparks more than slow burns. Now, this may be insufficient for some who want that slow burn gradient for their films and enjoy watching the waters rise over the nose the ears the eyes of their protagonists, but I almost found it more interesting how Hancock more or less would dunk his characters in cold water from time to time. It’s also two mysteries in one, with the current murders being looked into while Deke has re-opened an older case that has haunted him for years. It’s not always an equal balance between the two cases and I still haven’t decided if Hancock has resolved either fairly enough but it’s certainly more ambitious a plot than not.
You wouldn’t expect an actor like Washington to show up in film that didn’t have some extra oomph to it, would you? While it falls into one of Washington’s more outright commercial efforts like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, you can tell Washington is bringing more to the character than what was on the page…and what was on the page is clearly what attracted him to the role in the first place. Deke is a flawed character with a range of setbacks he’s been working around. His return trip to L.A. is causing him to confront those and his relationship with Baxter is a chance for further reflection on the mistakes he’s made both personally and professionally. In typical Washington fashion, he takes what could have been an average role that a good actor could have made better and turns it into a bona fide star turn.
He’s followed pretty closely by Leto as one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen anyone play in some time. Wearing dark contacts, a paunch, greasy hair, and a strange gait, he also takes on an affected voice that I was dubious about at first but starts to work into the freak factor if you buy into Deke and Baxter’s hunch that he’s the man they seek. He certainly plays into their suspicions and Leto goes full, well, Leto in the performance. I was genuinely unnerved by the actor and he’s well cast from my vantage point. In the shadow of these two, Malek can’t help but look a little chilly and reserved. Apparently unaware he isn’t wearing his Freddie Mercury teeth anymore, Malek always appears poised to ask Washington if he has any Grey Poupon and his attempts at being serious come off as bug-eyed confusion. He’s just the wrong fit for the role as a family man young detective that becomes obsessed with finding this killer. Another note about the cast in general, Hancock has amassed a fairly phenomenal supporting cast of bit players comprised of, among others, familiar faces (Lee Garlington, Psycho II in a small role as a harried landlady) and grown-up child stars (I didn’t even recognize Free Willy’s Jason James Richter as another LASD detective) – so it’s all around a strong world that’s been created for viewers.
Built on Hancock’s sometimes wobbly script that does require your rapt attention, the editing of the film is what detracts from the overall quality the most. Several key scenes are hard to follow because, without giving any spoilers, the editor doesn’t properly establish location of certain characters. That’s a big problem when you’re trying to put a puzzle together with only your brain storing the pieces. My advice is to pay close attention throughout because important information about characters are given in sometimes offhanded ways, almost as toss away lines. For a number of people, The Little Things will be seen as a creaky serial killer thriller that’s past its expiration date but it’s actually one that has outlived its sell-by window with better than average results.