The Little Things (2021) – Review


Thomas Farrell, Contributor

The American crime thriller is one of the most crowded genres in all of media. Every year, there is a deluge of content released under this moniker and The Little Things just happens to be one of the most recent. As the first movie released in 2021 under the same-day HBO Max and Theater release, does this film shake up this stale genre like it is shaking up films distribution? Regrettably, the answer is no.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things stars a great cast of Oscar winners, including Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto in some of their career-worst performances as a burnt-out deputy sheriff, a crack detective, and a potential serial killer, respectively. It’s hard to overstate just how much each cast member phones in his performance. The normally very kinetic and engaging Denzel Washington is reduced to a boring character who seemingly could have been played by anyone. The same can be said for Rami Malek, who is at his most disinterested here, barely emoting even when he’s supposed to be. The only one who performs even slightly above average is Leto, whose performance just feels like a pastiche of greater ones.

“So yeah, the performances might not be great but surely the story and writing more than make up for it,” I hear you quip. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Much like how Leto’s performance feels like a pastiche of greater ones, much does the plot here. Washington plays Deke, a burnt-out, northern California deputy sheriff who returns to Los Angeles, his old stomping grounds, and teams up with Detective Baxter, played by Malek, to catch a serial killer. Leto plays local weirdo Albert Sparma, who they suspect is the man responsible for the recent string of murders, but he could just be stringing our protagonists along.

The director, Hancock, claims to have written the script in the early 90s, but it was rejected at the time for the ending. While the story of an old, burnt-out cop working together with a young, hot-shot detective might have been fresh then, it certainly is not now. The much-loved David Fincher film, Se7en, does that same shtick much better. There are attempts to give Deke some depth, as he is tortured by his inability to solve a similar crime from years earlier that resulted in his exile from the force, but it’s not enough to make him a compelling figure. However, the character of Baxter is especially dull, as there’s nothing distinct to him at all. In a time when there are excellent, movie-quality television shows like True Detective, these formulaic story beats and characters just don’t cut it.

One area the film does somewhat succeed is in the visuals and music score. While neither of these elements are blow-you-away fantastic, they do well to create a certain atmosphere that sucks you into the world of the film. There’s a great use of lighting and color here, with lots of almost-pinkish reds and teal blues marking a decrepit 90s Los Angeles. The music gels very well with the tone of the visuals and isn’t used so often as to distract from what’s actually happening on screen. There’s a certain amount of “understatedness” here that serves to reflect the theme that it’s “the little things” that matter.

All these elements come together in a dull and dour hodgepodge that results in a predictable and “I’ve-seen-this-before” ending that neither satisfies, nor titillates, nor even leaves you questioning. Instead, the ending just makes you feel like you’ve wasted the last two hours of your life watching a poor crime thriller that isn’t particularly thrilling.

However, for a decently budgeted new film available to watch in cinemas or included with a $15/month subscription to HBO Max, you can do much worse. It probably works best as something to put on in the background as white noise and passively watch while you do something else. I don’t recommend this as something to put on for movie night, though. As the first film released in 2021 I’ve seen, The Little Things doesn’t fill me with much confidence that there’s better things to come.