Director John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things is a throwback to thrillers of the early 90s. Despite having three Oscar-winning actors, Hancock is completely unable to convey a sense of understanding or narrative coherence. The result is a jumbled mess of a film with the three actors seeming to act in three different films.
Denzel Washington portrays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Kern County Deputy, who has to go back to Los Angeles to collect evidence of a recent murder. When he gets there, he runs into Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) as he investigates a series of murders. No one in the Los Angeles sheriff’s office wants Deke around. Everyone feels Deke is a brilliant investigator, but no one wants him around.
Baxter is the teacher’s pet of the LA Sheriff’s office. He is methodical and cares about the rules and regulations. Deke runs contrary to Baxter’s sensibilities, but the younger warms up to elder. Deke hangs around and helps with the serial killer investigations and hangs around, staring at the pictures of the victims on his dingy flop house wall.
Deke’s investigation leads him in the direction of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a greasy-haired loner who sure looks like a serial killer. He makes crude references and frequents strip clubs. He also knows quite a bit about the murders. Cat and mouse, so on and so forth.
The film is inexplicably set in 1990. Nothing sets the film apart from modern day apart from a few uses of pay phones. Hancock claims he wrote the script back in 1994. His timeline explanations feels like an effort to deflect comparisons to Se7en in 1995. Comparisons to that (much superior) film are everywhere, between after-views of inexplicable murders, to the bureaucracy of police work and culminating in a desert climax.
The three actors can’t get on the same page in terms of their performance. Washington is always dependable, but he sleepwalks through the film. His persona is supposed to be burned out, but his energy switches depending on the scene. Is Deke a loose cannon who plays by his own rules, or is he the genius detective with an eye for the unseen? The film and Washington can never decide. Malek is given the most thankless role. While shown to be the young hotshot, Malek’s odd energy don’t do him any favors. Malek’s acting gifts are more suited to the deranged and strange. A character as straight-laced and relatively normal doesn’t suit him. He feels egregiously miscast.
Meanwhile, Leto is the only one in the cast who is enjoying himself. Unfortunately, every hilarious line reading doesn’t suit the rest of the film. Leto works best when a director reigns in his worst impulses, but Hancock is not that director. The actor goes for it in every scene and changes the tone of the entire film. Sparma is the assumed villian of the film and Leto gives him humor that saps any feeling of tension. The audience is supposed to feel like Sparma could murder women on a whim, but he shows incredible restraint and no violent tendencies. At least Leto gives the film some type of energy.
Hankcock’s script gives no insight into these characters and reveals mysteries that aren’t that mysterious. The film can promote “untold secrets” or “serial killer mystery” but the only mystery is to why this film was made and not kept in the same drawer it had been in since 1994. A film with this pedigree should have been 20x better and it did not come close.