The popularity of neo-noir films has inspired a multitude of directors, including Quentin Tarantino, who used the style in some of his greatest films, such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” While the genre has seen a decline in mainstream popularity in the last two decades, Hollywood hasn’t stopped using it as a creative blueprint.
“The Little Things” was originally pitched in 1993 by director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who wrote “The Blind Side,” the screenplay was passed on by Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, who felt its content was too dark to greenlight. Hancock then spent the next 28 years trying to sell the film until Warner Bros. moved forward with Denzel Washington in the lead role. Warner Bros. then made its controversial decision to simulcast the release of its entire 2021 lineup on both HBO Max and in theaters.
Set in 1990, Washington plays Kern County deputy sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon. After being pressured to retire by his superiors following an investigation that took a toll on both his physical and mental health, he accompanies lead detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) to the scene of a new murder in Los Angeles. There, he notices similarities with an old serial murder case he was unable to solve.
Deacon begins looking into a potential suspect named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who works at a repair store near the scene of the murder. Deacon and Baxter team up to bring the mass murderer down, but Sparma’s ability to remain one step ahead of the police tests the limits of everyone at the department.
At its best, “The Little Things” is a character study of a man desperate for a path to redemption. The film exists in a world before modern CSI tactics were used to solve crimes, and it celebrates the old-school, bare-bones method of police work.
The audience learns something bad has happened to Deacon, something so tragic that it led to the downfall of his marriage and nearly killed him. Without giving anything away, Washington carries the film in his portrayal of a driven man consumed by his failures.
There are many unfair comparisons to the film “Seven” that this movie has to endure. Ironically, the script for “The Little Things” was pitched years before “Seven’s” release. However, those lost years in development hell cost the film its edge.
Jared Leto is a standout. He makes the most of his limited screen time as a mundane yet terrifying serial killer in a film with an unconventional ending and moral dilemma.
Despite having three Oscar winners in the main roles, Rami Malek as the young, up-and-coming detective is miscast. The attempt to have Malek and Washington as an odd couple doesn’t pay off because the mismatched chemistry between the two never clicks.
For a film set in the early 1990s, the style of the picture feels more 2021, making it hard to tell the setting was nearly 30 years ago. Some writing is problematic: Characters make emotionally flawed decisions that clash with their intelligence levels. One of the film’s better scenes has Deacon and Baxter interrogate Sparma once they know he’s the killer, but don’t having the evidence to bring him down.
When Deacon loses his cool, it illustrates how much Sparma’s case has consumed his life. But when Baxter foolishly follows Sparma’s lead during the closing moments of the film, the sequence screams lazy story arc, just racing to the end.
Many filmmakers become writers and directors of their own projects as a cost-saving measure. In some cases, it compromises quality in favor of the bottom line. Hancock creates some great cinematic storytelling behind the camera, but the lack of a polished script produces a movie that only half delivers.
Whether viewers feel the film finishes with a strong cliffhanger will vary on interpretation. “The Little Things” is a flawed movie that overcomes its minor problems by filling the screen with a strong cast of actors.