The Little Things
Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto co-star in this 90s-style serial killer thriller — and none of them will add new Oscars to their mantles for their efforts.
February 18, 2021
Before you've even seen a single frame of a film, much can sometimes be gleaned by merely knowing who's in it — if they've been cast to type. The Little Things features Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, which means it can brag that it stars three Oscar winners, as its trailer does. The movie has also happily deployed its trio of main players exactly as you'd expect. So, adding yet another cop to his resume, Washington plays unflinchingly dedicated and determined, as well as a character who's far from perfect. Malek has a much shorter acting history, but once again combines the blend of awkwardness and meticulousness that seeped from his pores over four seasons of Mr Robot. As for Leto, he's asked to mine not just his recent cinematic past, but also his overall status in popular culture. From his overcooked take on the Joker in Suicide Squad to the misplaced swagger that's defined his off-screen persona and his rock stardom with Thirty Seconds to Mars, he's hardly widely beloved. The Little Things wants everyone watching to remember that, and perhaps to even stoke the flames of their existing Leto hatred.
Washington's Joe 'Deke' Deacon was once a well-admired Los Angeles detective; however, when The Little Things begins, he's a deputy sheriff in Kern County. His current and former colleagues all see that shift as a step down, but he's just as dogged in his new job — and, when he's reluctantly sent back to LA to collect evidence for an important trial, then gets brought in on a new serial killer case by Malek's hotshot newcomer Jim Baxter while he's hanging about, he's downright unrelenting. A number of women have been found murdered, and in gruesome circumstances. Baxter doesn't realise it, but the details prove familiar to Deke from years earlier. As the pair's new investigation leads them to repair store employee Albert Sparma (Leto), neither Deke nor Baxter is willing to rest until they solve the case. Off-putting and unpleasant from the moment he's first seen, the creepy, possibly psychotic Sparma likes being seen as a suspect, though, and enjoys toying with the men following him.
So far in 2021's awards season, Leto has been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his greasy-haired turn as Sparma, and it's near-impossible to fathom why. Tasked with an overtly and explicitly unlikeable part, he simply leans in, makes the most obvious of choices he possible can and relishes the dismay he seems to already sense coming his way. He's so over-the-top that he's just operating in the same one-note register that plagued his work in Suicide Squad (and, presumably, is about to be witnessed again in the new four-hour version of Justice League). There are exactly two notable elements to Leto's performance in The Little Things, and neither do him any favours. Firstly, everyone with abhorrence already pumping through their veins whenever he pops up in a film will feel not just comfortable about but justified in having made that choice. Secondly, Leto plays such a caricature with such forceful commitment and utter lack of subtlety that it makes his fellow big-name co-stars look positively rich and nuanced in comparison.
Neither Washington and Malek will add another statuette to their mantles for their efforts in The Little Things, but the film is at its best when it lets the pair share a scene (and to do so without Leto). More than just bringing a stock-standard chalk-and-cheese pairing to the screen, they infuse Deke and Baxter's dynamic with texture — demonstrating the similarities between the two men as much as the differences, which gives the characters' working relationship far more liveliness than it might've boasted otherwise. As written and directed by The Blindside's John Lee Hancock, The Little Things doesn't gloss over either cop's flaws, but it mightn't have interrogated them to the same extent if they'd been played by other actors. And, when the storyline takes its two detectives into murky territory — with Deke haunted by past choices from the feature's first moments, and Baxter destined to follow him despite his clear conscientiousness — it might've rung hollow without Washington and Malek to sell the specifically required blend of bleakness, ambiguity and inevitability.
If it was easy to predict how Hancock was going to use his three stars before even watching the movie, it's just as easy to see how their on-screen fates encapsulate the film. When The Little Things is great, it does more than just hit its blatant marks. When it's terrible, it's grating to the point of being futile. For most of its running time, it sits in the middle, and in the shadow of far better police procedurals. Zodiac, this isn't, for instance — but there's no doubting that masterpiece's influence here, or the similar imprint made by cop flicks from the 90s, when The Little Things is set. Hancock actually wrote his screenplay three decades ago, so it predates David Fincher's multiple entries into the serial killer genre and many of the other movies it now seems to ape, but the passage of time has proven a double-edged sword. If the film had reached cinemas back then, it might've been able to carve itself a distinctive niche or at least felt like part of a pack. Now, it mainly reminds viewers that better pictures exist, and have for some time.
Still, as well as Washington and Malek's memorable-enough performances, this moodily shot affair does tick another welcome box. As seen through the era-appropriate absence of mobile phones, the time spent stepping through traditional detective methods, the weight of investigating tough cases, and the fallout from making both wrong and right decisions, The Little Things revels in the physical and emotional labour of chasing a killer. That's not enough to make up for its generally routine feel, of course, but it makes the audience follow the title's advice and value the smallest of highlights.