“THE LITTLE THINGS” ALMOST HAD IT BUT, NOT QUITE
The Little Things isn’t the best but it’s not a throwaway either.
If you listen to any good true crime podcast, you’ll find that a lot of unsolved murder cases trace back to poor police work. With nearly every long-standing case, there’s usually a connection back to cops who got hung up on the wrong suspect, or who maybe, forgot to collect a key evidence, or speak to all the neighbours near the scene of a crime. Whatever the case, there is usually something wrong. This doesn’t discount the challenges in policing and how difficult it is to actually find a killer. After all, we have TV shows like Mindhunter to remind us of the chasm between what we learn about these enigmatic and cold figures and what we actually know about them, but the issues in policing remain true. How do these murderers choose their victims? What would a victim need to do to save themselves? No one knows the answers to these questions because there is no rule to serial killing. So, if we can’t even understand the fundamental details that make a serial killer, things like their temperament, routines and patterns, how are everyday cops meant to find them? The Little Things attempts to explore the implications of the conundrums within policing, the stuff that no one has managed to solve.
The film has all the hallmarks of a classic crime thriller, fantastic acting (by most of the cast), suspense and even blood; some parts of the film are very good but for whatever reason, its effects are tepid. It’s not for a lack of trying though. It’s obvious that screenwriter/director John Lee Hancock took pains to enliven the dissonance between the idea of policing and its practicalities but the movie takes so long to reveal his larger vision, it doesn’t feel worth it when you finally get there.
The Little Things is about Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), a seasoned officer who ends up collaborating with detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) on a serial murder case in Los Angeles. Deacon was only supposed to return to his former station to get evidence for a trial and then return to his new placement in the north. But he gets sidetracked by a serial murder case that is eerily similar to murders he worked on many years before. The details of his policing efforts are made murky but when he shows up at his former station, his old captain is short with him. It’s a point that is obviously important since Deacon constantly reminds Baxter and the audience, that minute details matter the most, but the way he’s treated is easy to overlook. In any case, Baxter pursues a form of mentorship with Deacon because, as it turns out, he had a reputation of closing many cases successfully. With Deacons years of experience and Baxter’s hunger for a win, the two are meant to hit a break in this difficult case and for the most part, their team up seems like a dream when a suspect (Jared Leto), suddenly falls into their laps.
The Little Things isn’t the best but it’s not a throwaway either. Still, it feels detached of grit and the tension needed to really have an impact. Probably, its most central flaw is that Hancock yields too much to pensive storytelling and philosophical themes that eventually overwhelm the feeling of angst needed for films within the thriller genre. It had a lot of potential, elements that mimic the feel of meditative crime thrillers like No Country for Old Men but, The Little Things is missing strain, realism and contemporary desperation, true of thought-provoking thrillers, that combine precision, malice, and exhaustive discomfort to haunt you. It doesn’t exactly present freshness on the serial killer narrative like say, Nightcrawler does, but there is a cynicism in the film that shares attributes of film noir.
Since it doesn’t quite fit within the margins of the thriller genre, the flaws in the movie are glaring. For instance, from our first introduction to Deacon, to the end of the film, the plot largely crawls. You’re obviously meant to focus on Deacons words and actions —the details —so, every thrilling element is faded. In the end, it’s a creative decision which hurts the film. In particular, we learn a lot about the existence of a terrifying killer but apart from the beginning, this ominous killer is largely missing from view. Their presence obviously looms over every decision made by the LA police, but since there is no consistent visual representation of his horror, save for a few flashbacks from Deacon’s past, the audience hardly feels any fear from his threat. There’s also the scarcity in sensory conditioning of tools like point of view shots from the killer’s perspective, menacing music to set the tone of the film, or dark scenes to make the viewing experience vivid and creepy. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine that Deacon’s world is real.
The casting choice isn’t perfect. Rami Malek makes an odd fit as a hardened detective because something about his performances lacks sincerity which often clashes against Leto and Washington’s more mature and convincing personas. Frankly, Malek’s enactment is jarring because it feels a bit like you were watching Elliot Alderson play a cop since his choice of mannerisms are inauthentic to a Baxter type; it’s in bad faith. As promising as it is, The Little Things isn’t for everyone. It’s one of those films that will fall flat for a lot of people but somehow excite die-hard film snobs because the beginning and the ending are perfect; the problem is with all the middle bits.