The Little Things, which is currently available to HBO Max subscribers on Warners’ streaming service, takes place in 1990. It was also first written in the 1990s (registered with the WGA in 1993, apparently). And this comes as no surprise, given its bold adherence to the tropes of the procedural crime genre that ballooned in the 1990s after the massive success of The Silence of the Lambs.
Se7en is the film The Little Things is being compared to the most vocally (writer-director John Lee Hancock is quick to point out his script was written before the release of Fincher’s film). I can see the resemblance, if I squint a little. However, I would not stack the film up against Se7en nor The Silence of the Lambs. It reads too principled and stodgy for that,
This isn’t to say the film is static. There are a handful of clever transitions, and a roving camera which does some decent work breaking out of the humdrum tradition of standing and talking that the police procedural television series erected. Some might go so far as to say that the rapid rise in popularity of this TV subgenre has rendered films like The Little Things obsolete, but Hancock does one or two (little) things to lift his piece to more theatrical territory.
All the same, The Little Things feels too familiar to stake any claim to jump-starting a retro ’90s crime renaissance. The character archetypes are clear as day. There’s the grizzled old guard officer of the law (Denzel Washington) who finds himself embroiled in a murder case that reminds him of a perp that got away. The hot-shot young detective (Rami Malek) who keeps his nose down and plays by the book and whose dedication to his work threatens the health of his marriage. The greasy-haired suspect (Jared Leto) who is ostensibly tempting the officers to bring him in, who seems to get a thrill out of being in the crosshairs.
None of it smells too fresh, and the performers play it too close to the tropes to come across as particularly compelling. Washington comes the closest, bringing an unspoken sadness to his character in moments where he is given no dialogue. But the script keeps pushing him away from nuance. Leto (who has now received both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for the role) is doing what one might expect from a Jared Leto role in this day-and-age. There is a vaguely compelling hollowness in his eyes, an intriguing matter-of-fact delivery to his lines. But it lacks what the entire film lacks—novelty. However, he may very well win that Golden Globe, as his performance hews close to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Globe-winning turn in Nocturnal Animals.
The first half hour or so of The Little Things breeds some sound mystery. Why is Denzel’s Joe “Deke” Deacon so reluctant to go to Los Angeles, but then so hesitant to leave once he sees the murder victim? What was the series of events that led him to leave the big city in favor of a rote assignment in Kern County with no promise of upward mobility? This intrigue keeps you invested in the setup, but the answers are dumped into our laps as an expository afterthought, seemingly as a means of expediting the narrative towards the meat-and-potatoes of the murder investigation (a meal which could use some seasoning).
In this era of at-home viewing, The Little Things may be a half-decent antidote to a media wasteland lacking many new movies. Advantageous for Warners, perhaps, to be able to market this three-hander right now. Because this is more sellable as a couch watch than a drive-all-the-way-to-the-multiplex-and-shell-out-15-dollars theatrical experience.
The Little Things: C+
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