By any metric, The Little Things had a bizarre journey from page to screen. John Lee Hancock, the movie’s eventual director, wrote the screenplay for it way back in 1993, and the project bounced around throughout the ’90s from one big-name director to another, with Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood each attached at various points along the way. (Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito also allegedly expressed interest.) The script then spent years collecting dust over at Warner Bros., while Hancock launched his own directing career, carving out a lane for himself with family-friendly fare such as 2009’s The Blind Side and 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. By the time he circled back around to direct The Little Things himself, it had become a period piece, remaining set in the early ’90s because it depicts a pre-DNA testing era of police work. In one final twist, the movie now finds itself debuting on a streaming service as part of a conglomerate’s attempt at juicing subscription numbers amid a pandemic.
Chaotic development process aside, The Little Things itself is a fairly somber, noirish crime movie, more concerned with establishing mood than providing thrills—though it keeps a few tricks up its sleeve in that department. Primarily set in Los Angeles, the movie follows small-town sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and hotshot LAPD detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek, sans Bohemian Rhapsody teeth) as they investigate a serial killer. Haunted by a similar case he failed to solve years earlier, Deacon quickly becomes obsessed with their primary suspect, the creepily named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), convinced that solving the case is his only path to redemption and the only way to prevent Baxter from becoming a guilt-ridden old man like him. If that all sounds a little familiar, well, Hancock is here to remind you that he wrote the script before anyone had even heard of Se7en.
Comparing the two movies won’t do The Little Things any favors, although a third-act scene set in the desert might leave you wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head is about to make an appearance. (On multiple occasions, Washington has said that passing on the Pitt role in Se7en is one of his few career regrets.) The Little Things is a quieter affair, though, and Hancock proves himself adept at establishing atmosphere, his seedy vision of early-’90s Los Angeles rarely punctured by anything that feels out of place. That immersiveness is aided by a leisurely but persistent rhythm to the movie’s pacing, with Hancock wisely giving center stage to Thomas Newman’s gorgeous piano score, allowing it to keep the mood consistent between scenes of characters delivering hard-boiled dialogue about guilt and mortality. (This is the type of movie where a practical conversation might suddenly veer off into a tangent on whether or not God has forsaken humanity.)
Still, the film’s stylistic cohesiveness can’t quite overcome the tiredness of its story or the lack of specificity in its characters. Washington, of course, is as reliable as ever, imbuing Deacon with a kind of haunted gravitas that keeps the movie from slipping into self-parody in its sillier moments. His relationship with Baxter, on the other hand, can’t help but feel manufactured, their growing admiration for one another conveyed to the audience through a stilted scene of the two men broing out over a couple beers. Part of this is the script’s fault for not better fleshing out the Baxter character, mentioning a couple times that he’s a local celebrity and an uncorrupted idealist without ever really showing us any of that. And part of it is that Malek isn’t quite right for the role, his screen presence slightly too off-kilter for him to automatically scan as a Boy Scout. Leto, meanwhile, doesn’t over-Leto things, hitting his marks despite some characteristically actor-y choices, including gaining a paunch and walking with an exaggerated hitch in his step. Hancock and his casting director, Denise Chamian, deserve some credit, too, for rounding out the cast with memorable character actors, including The Deuce’s Chris Bauer, who ought to have the kind of movie career that Peter Boyle enjoyed in the ’70s.
If it’s hard to shake the feeling that The Little Things strives to be Se7en or Zodiac, it still manages to satisfy in a meat-and-potatoes sort of way, delivering its twists and turns effectively while having the confidence to not wrap things up too neatly by the end of its runtime. While Washington may never get a proper do-over when it comes to passing on the David Fincher classic, it’s good to have him back on the screen, doing what he does best.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales
Release Date: January 29, 2021 (HBO Max)
Chris Stanton is a copy editor and freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and is usually looking for opportunities to talk about Jack Nicholson. He can be followed on Twitter @chrisstanton27.