What truly makes for a great detective movie? History has shown us it’s a balance between mystery, well-rounded characters and a story that keeps audiences on their toes. More often than not one of these elements ares missing, so do strong characters with chemistry cover a lack of story? Or does an intricate and enthralling mystery make up for thinly-drawn players? The Little Things attempts a different approach by playing with the most basic level of those elements. It doesn’t so much elevate the genre as it does simply exist in it.
It certainly has characters, including small-town Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and hotshot Los Angeles Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). The former is a kindly, awkward, detail-oriented cop previously shunned from the L.A. office, where the latter soft-spoken but looks consistently troubled by any and all human actions. The movie has the moody grit of 1990 inner-city Los Angeles as its setting, where multiple women have gone missing and eventually are found dead. Curious about his behavior and reputation amongst big wigs, Baxter starts working the case with Deacon. The two dig deeper into the details, eventually finding a shifty appliance repairman (Jared Leto) as a prime suspect. But Deacon’s methods and his past become equally suspect as he becomes more obsessed with the victims and finding the killer.
The Little Things is serviceable. The stocked cast of leads accompanied by reliable supporting actors (Chris Bauer, Natalie Morales), moody sets of the seedy L.A. underbelly shot with crisp muted colors by cinematographer John Schwartzman (The Amazing Spider-Man, Last Christmas), and an occasionally-haunting score from Thomas Newman (1917). Writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) puts all those things together for a functional picture, not really adding anything unique to it but making them click together like Lego parts.
However, as the title suggests, it’s little things that make for distracting elements. The editing, both in the shots and the audio, are occasionally sudden and off-putting. Most of the shots in the first half of the movie either get cut-off right after the last line of dialogue or just before, giving the movie a jarring sense of unease when it’s not warranted. There needs to be more time for scenes to breathe so the audience can settle into the feeling of scenes. Instead it’s like the movie is rushing itself when it needs to set-up its foundation. As for the audio, some of the dialogue levels sound lowered in certain scenes and other times the post-production overdubs of lines are noticeable.
Technical details aside, The Little Things suffers a paradox of being a story overstuffed with boring detail. The rollout of the mystery is perfunctory with unremarkable details mumbled out through crucial scenes. More focus is afforded to Deacon’s backstory, leaving Baxter a blank slate who’s boring to follow and a faceless villain that’s hard to care about. It eventually becomes a story of duality between Deacon and Baxter that, to Hancock’s credit, gets closed in a surprisingly satisfying way. But the script still feels like it’s stuck with basic details and not using its 127-minute runtime to fill the rest of the frame with something impactful.
That weight lies entirely on the actors, specifically Washington. Sure he’s got two other Oscar-winners in the cast, but he’s clearly the one holding any sense of charisma and mystique. Washington’s talent is obvious to anyone who’s ever seen any of his movies, but it says a lot about him that he can inject electricity into such a standard script. Again, as the title suggests, it’s the little ticks that Washington brings to Deacon that make him watchable: his friendly but slightly awkward social manner, his hunched posture that makes him easy to fade into the background and the laser-focus he has when learning details of the case. Washington has done the world-weary elder statesman with shady history-type before (see Flight or The Equalizer), but this version is a bit more somber and haggard. It’s basically all the emotion the movie has aside from stress, which Malek has in spades. For someone last seen bringing the right balance of flamboyance and hurt to Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek seems utterly lost in The Little Things. His face can’t emote anything aside from nausea, his body language doesn’t evoke any kind of presence (especially next to Washington), and his character development as the over-stressed detective is rendered moot when he’s looked stressed for the entire running time. It’s actually a relief when Leto shows up to chew scenery by doing an impression of Pollux Troy from Face/Off, because at least he brings some energy.
Regardless of it going both to theaters and streaming due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Little Things will find its true home on afternoon reruns in basic cable. It’s standard thriller fare whose sole accentuation is another crafty lead performance from one of the best actors of all time. It checks the boxes needed to craft a typical crime thriller, but The Little Things feels more assembled and polished rather than crafted and rarified. At the very least it’s nice to know that even in the era of mass closures of movie theaters, January filler can still find a home.
The Little Things is now streaming on HBO Max.