Writer-director John Lee Hancock is not on Hollywood’s gritty-drama speed dial. In The Highwaymen, the writer-director told the story of Bonnie and Clyde by sidestepping the danger inherent in Arthur Penn’s classic for a sanguine dad/road movie about the cops who chased them. In The Blind Side, rather than confronting the real racial and socioeconomic inequities Black folks like Michael Oher face, Hancock highlighted the efforts of his white, adoptive mother. The director, based on his record, would seem ill-equipped to map his penchant for feel-good stories onto a vicious landscape, and even less suited to tackling a psychologically intense neo-noir wherein moral ambiguity reigns.
Yet, with The Little Things, Warner Bros.’ first simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max release of 2021, he nearly pulls it off. The film is a grim, slow-burn thriller concerning regret and obsession that shows off the director’s range.
[Ed. note: This review contains minor spoilers for The Little Things.]
As totems of old- and new-school detective work, Oscar winners Rami Malek and Denzel Washington are, initially, an awkward pairing due to the incongruity of an overexplaining screenplay. The pertinent exposition centers on Deke (Washington), a small-town cop, who returns to his former stomping grounds of Los Angeles to discover that a serial killer hunting women is on the loose. To capture the murderer, and in a bid to quell his own ghosts, he teams up with Jimmy (Malek), a dedicated hotshot detective whose obsessive drive bears a resemblance to his own intensity. In Jimmy’s crusading eyes, no missing person is deceased until they appear at the morgue — an intriguing mirror to Hancock’s own unyielding optimism for the world magically correcting its flaws.
The Little Things struggles to gain momentum due to Hancock’s ironic fascination with the little things. In a sequence focused on examining a gruesome murder scene, Jimmy explains to anyone within earshot his commitment to the job. Later, another character notes that “K-heart, love songs of the ’50s and ’60s” is playing on the radio. These tidbits feel like talkative speed bumps on the path to understanding Washington’s character and the intricacies of Jimmy’s investigation. To grapple with how the unsolved murder haunts Deke, Hancock instead uses hackneyed procedural elements, such as the cop speaking to a victim’s body in the morgue, as messy avenues into the characters’ interiority.
Treating characters with such distance, as though Hancock knows the neo-noir subgenre is outside of his comfort zone, one is amazed when the movie finds its stride. Rather than returning to his small town and letting the actual LAPD handle the case, a curious Deke takes up residence in a red-light motel in order to further investigate the case with Jimmy. The pair identify a surreal repairman, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), as their prime suspect. Leto, playing a character similar in temperament to his disturbing, opaque turn in Blade Runner 2049, is perfectly cast in a svengali role that’s half Manson and half Ted Bundy. One even gets the sense, through his long hair and repairman jumpsuit, that Leto needn’t go through costume or makeup. He may have been living this role, and just showed up this way.
The shift from a duo to trio transforms The Little Things into an alluring ode to David Fincher’s Se7en. Albert mirrors the Fincher villain John Doe by way of his intricate intelligence, and his love for manipulating Deke and Jimmy. He goads the former by reminding Deke of the murders he has failed to solve. And after a jogger with a red barrette goes missing, Albert leverages Jimmy’s dedication to victims as a way to tarnish the spirit of this boy wonder. The passive-aggressive Albert wants one of these guys to break — to become like him — to resort to violence. The pair shared an antagonistic relationship at the outset, but as mentor and student, with the counterbalance of Leto, the naturalistic Washington and the eager Malek finally work out a connection whereby their competing styles become complementary. The film’s bleakness not only propels the trio of actors, but also Thomas Newton’s anxious score; cinematographer John Schwartzman’s frank, chiaroscuro photography; and Hancock’s obsession with broken-down souls.
The Little Things is a fascinating cat-and-mouse game that the experienced Deke is all too familiar with, but one that exposes Jimmy for prey. The detectives’ insecurities lead them to bond over their shared obsession, and Washington deftly balances that fine line between controllable neuroticism and irrepressible compulsion. While he initially plays Deke as though he were a tentative recovering addict, a man who went cold turkey from his obsession of solving cases only to find this new hit, he later takes command and transforms into the swaggering Denzel that audiences are used to. The confidence he projects, however, isn’t without fail. Deke is carrying mountains of baggage. And at night, when he’s alone, that baggage opens up to flashbacks to his final failed case. The managed image he projects to Jimmy versus his fractured inner self provides a deeply psychological film its sturdy base.
It’s Hancock’s fixation on reclamation — an aging pitcher searching for one last chance at stardom in The Rookie, or a gentle Black giant turned football player sheltered by a white family in The Blind Side — that separates The Little Things from like-minded dramas. Unlike the reticence he showed toward violence in The Highwaymen, Hancock leans into the paranoia through bloody set-pieces, intense-yet-fluid car chases, and smart compositions. The killer’s light-brown Cadillac is hidden somewhere in every exterior scene, keeping us on our toes at its multiple sightings and further sowing doubt about the killer’s identity. Though the director provides sufficient clues for us to suspect Albert is the culprit, there are enough holes in the case that the uncertainty starts to build. By the end, the dramatic bubble is just waiting to pop.
But when the bubble bursts, Hancock leans into the moral murkiness of his visceral ending, with Newton’s jarringly light, inspirational score undoing much of the angst he took so long to tease. Still, the ending can’t entirely sink the journey. Hancock, in what might be his best film, grazes with greatness by constructing an enthralling thriller that relies on the talent of its three leading men to mine regret for mystery. But the mawkish little habits, the slow start, and the timid finale just barely get Hancock caught. It’s the little things that tear The Little Things apart.
The Little Things premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Jan. 29.
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