The Little Things follows the story of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a world-weary deputy sheriff from Bakersfield, Kern County. He is called to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to collect evidence in relation to a recent murder. Most people are apprehensive of his presence due to the fact that he used to work there and his reputation has been somewhat tarnished due to a tragic mistake he made in an unsolved murder case, which had cost him his career and his marriage.
He is pulled into investigation of a murder case alongside the apprehensive and standoffish detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) and the two reluctantly team up when Deacon finds similarities in both the current case and the case he failed to solve. The two eventually end up finding a probable lead in the name of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), but the nagging doubt remains. Is Sparma the true culprit or is he an embodiment of the desperation that both Deacon and Baxter have in solving the case?
The Little Things is the latest film from writer/director John Lee Hancock, best known Oscar-nominated work like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks; biographical dramas about triumphing over adversity. This latest project is a sharp diversion from those films, with Hancock venturing into the crime genre; delving into the dark side of human nature as it blurs both sides of the equation facing each other.
Unfortunately, film’s title foreshadows the quality of it; resulting in much too little in comparison to what it promises. The story features all the ingredients that would make a great serial killer feature; top-notch casting, an interesting plot and a talented crew to realise Hancock’s vision. But it just does not reach that potential.
One of the major reasons is because of its lack of concrete characterizations; especially in the case of Jim Baxter. Apart from the requisite toil of his job (which most characters here experience) and a strained family life, we never really get the gist as to why he wants to catch the culprit so badly. It does not help that Malek’s performance is so distracting in how boorish it is. In fact, he comes across as suspicious to the point that he may even be the culprit.
The awards buzz for Leto’s performance as Sparma is also a bit of a nagging issue. There is no doubt that Leto is clearly having fun in the role, and he does shine through the oppressive tone. However, the performance and dialogue does come across as too comedic to the point that it dissipates the tension. His work feels too self-conscious and it does not feel like he fully embodies the role. In fact, that the audience is only seeing Leto playing the role. There are scenes where Leto is walking in a jolly manner with a fake gut and it becomes laughable because it is so clearly Leto “acting”. To be fair, the nature of Sparma does fit that notion. But, it is hard to take him seriously as any of the characters do.
That carries forward and results in unwarranted shifts in tone. The first act carries the story forward quite well, it establishes the characters in place and the tone across consistently. The film does not go overboard into the grisly, nitty-gritty portrayal of crime scene investigation either. Instead it approaches them in a more contemplative, cerebral fashion i.e. Washington “talks” to the female cadavers, pledging them that he will find who the culprit. But, when Leto becomes the forefront of the picture, that balance in tone becomes lopsided.
There is a scene where Washington and Leto butt heads in the interrogation room. It starts off quite well in the sort of aggressor and quiet braggart sort of way. But, once the conflict concludes climactically, Washington shouts out a line that is so out-of-place that it ruins the scene and makes it unintentionally funny. And the film proceeds like that in its third act as Leto psychologically torments – or in some cases, trolls – the lead characters in such a way that it comes across as a comedy.
It is because of the weak characterisations and the weak handling of the tone that the big third act reveal feels so shockingly inert. You are never really drawn in with the psychological pull or the desperation to know the answers because you never really get the gist as to why these characters want to know. In the case of Washington’s character, his reasons are revealed after the fact. So it all relies on Malek’s character, and neither Washington’s or Malek’s performances are convincing.
Throw in a droning ending that piles on the revelations and you have got yourself The Little Things. It is hard to fathom that a project like this, such as it is, has this much talent behind it. Yet, it is a shame that it ended up as underwhelming as it is.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Little Things is showing in cinemas now.