Pitched in 1993 by writer/director John Lee Hancock only to be met with apprehension for being too dark, The Little Things is now upon us. The 1990’s setting has gone from contemporary to a period piece, and the dynamic of the lead trio is just different enough from that of Se7en to set itself apart. Speaking of Se7en, how was this considered too dark to produce when that film came out a meager two years after this film’s first script was completed? Anyhow, The Little Things is neither a surprise early hit nor a classic January misfire. I admire the classic 90’s feel of it, and it’s generally more concerned with the characters than showing off any intricate or grisly killings. Some may call it tame, but I appreciate its subtle approach to the actual crimes being committed allowing us to zero in on what the characters are up to. I can certainly see how the script for this film would lead any director to believe it must be made with the savagery of Fincher or something adjacent to the video nasty era, but in reality the film is quite withdrawn from its gore. This is no standard killer with a hyper-specific method or motive, which makes the mystery feel much harder to crack.
The real reason I was drawn to this movie was the cast, and I’m probably not alone in that. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek are great together in theory and in practice. Denzel’s Deke is an older and hardened deputy with a dark, mysterious past that’s paired up with Rami Malek’s young and dignified detective Jim Braxton. (For the record, Deke is haunted by two particular things: one displayed effectively in surreal sequences throughout and one revealed in a quick and lazy flashback.) As the two of them trail a killer, Deke’s secrets and Braxton’s callous naivety both begin to crack open. It’s interesting to see Denzel in a film where, had it been made on time back in the day, he would’ve likely played the younger of the two men. Malek is great as well, his pension for less than expressive vocal patterns lending to his character’s detachment and superiority complex. Once you see Braxton get more frustrated while Deke becomes only more determined it’s a welcome dynamic shift. Even Jared Leto’s odd mannerisms bring a lot to the table, an uncharismatic and greasy guy delivering quips that sound otherworldly coming out of his mouth. He’s intimidating without the actor breaking through the character out of a desire to chew scenery.
To get to the story, it can feel pretty lackluster. The opening scene does a good job of setting the tone, but it ends on an odd note that poisons the well of the rest of the film. There’s an odd feel to all of it, as Deke halfway flirts with a doctor inspecting the victim’s bodies and Braxton relentlessly pursues the killer against all good judgement. There are some intricate details in the first act that make you think the mystery is going to be way more complicated than it is, but are quickly swept under the rug once Leto’s suspicious Sparma rears his head.
What starts out as a struggle to solve a mystery instead turns into a story about overcoming the past. Deke is haunted by the spectres of those he could not save and he sees that Braxton is heading down a similar path, one that only leads to regrets. When Sparma enters the picture, the two men trade places, Deke determined to take his time looking for answers while Braxton is only more and more convinced they’ve found their man. The extended climax gets to the heart of what the film is going for- even if you catch the boogeyman, the long shadow of his past will still hang over you if you let it. There are plenty of compelling images and scenes in The Little Things, but it admittedly does not add up to much. Though all of its themes are there and easy to unpack, in the moment they feel muddy and only in the way of the story at hand. What I’m really here for is the brooding atmosphere, and the film delivers that in spades.
It might be the first big release of 2021, but there’s likely a reason that The Little Things premiered the same day this year’s virtual Sundance film festival began. I still think it’s an effort worthy of a watch, but I can’t say all the parts come together nicely. If you miss Denzel as a proper leading man, you’ll get what you came for. It also ends particularly strong, which makes it hard to dislike.