Film Review: ‘The Little Things’: Maybe Wait for Bigger Things

February 2, 2021 Updated: February 2, 2021

R | | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 29 January 2021 (USA)

This review of “The Little Things” checks a couple of boxes. Firstly, it’s our first review since the beginning of the pandemic to more or less coincide with the movie’s release date. Secondly, it’s a classic January movie, meaning it’s mildly meh, and you might want to miss it.

It does feature a decent Denzel Washington performance, but the rest of the movie functions like a pair of ill-fitting trousers that he has to keep hiking up, so as to avoid having to walk around with them down around his ankles.

Old Cop Mentors Young Cop

Director John Lee Hancock gives us a thriller with the hoary plot of Joe Deacon (Washington), a banished homicide detective returning to surreptitiously mentor a younger detective (Rami Malek) and help him finish what he, “Deke,” started.

man in front of microphones in "The Little Things"
Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) talks to the press, in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

When Deke was on an extremely similar case, it drove him to a level of obsessive nuttiness that resulted in a massive mistake, which then needed to be swept under the department rug by his superiors, and also, naturally, necessitated Deke’s dismissal. Which domino-effected into a Deke-divorce and a major heart attack.

What case? Who couldn’t Deke catch? A highly intelligent serial killer, of course, the kind that give detectives heart attacks. This particular one murdered many Los Angeles street prostitutes.

It’s 1990. Currently working as a Sheriff’s deputy in a nearby county, Deke happens to be back in LA tying up some loose ends for his new boss and runs into old colleagues, who invite him for a quick coffee and some gossip. One thing leads to another, and, oops—fresh murders with the same signature as the old murders, start happening.

Which of course makes Deke curious. After a short period of alpha hostility, sniffing, and territorial boundary-marking with Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), the new, young, talented detective filling Deke’s old position, they both realize they share an obsession for perfection. And the same predilection for nailing perverts. And they join forces. But like I mentioned, surreptitiously, because their former and current boss, respectively (Terry Kinney), knows Deke’s sniffing around and is vehemently opposed to his influence.

Main Suspect

man with long hair in "The Little Things"
Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a possible serial killer, in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

Now effectively partners, Deke and Baxter’s teamwork eventually lead them to one Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a stringy-haired, beer-bellied, almost Hannibal-Lecter-level-intelligent appliance repairman with a slight limp. Sparma’s partial to wearing greasy “wife-beater” tank-tops, and drives a mildly-muscled lime green 1970 Chevy Nova with roomy trunk space.

blue car and green car in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, L) and Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

Deke and Baxter trying to catch this slippery (possible) killer becomes a fun cat-and-mouse game for Sparma, but the detectives never have quite enough evidence to nail him despite a whole lot of illegal detective breaking and entering.

man in white t-shirt in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, L) talking to dead girls in his mind, in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

Director-writer Hancock could have given us a standard-issue, physical evidence, CSI-type detective for Washington to play, but has Deke instead be a rarified type of sleuth-artiste, meditating in dark hotel rooms, having conversations with new corpses in the morgue, and having visualizations of old victim-corpses standing at the foot of his bed, silently emoting at him.

man and corpse in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) talking to a dead girl in the morgue, in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

And so, ultimately, Hancock focuses on the psychology, the PTSD, as it were, of what can happen to homicide detectives on high profile cases, and the extent to which such things get into their heads and get entrenched like some kind of brain tape-worm.

Both Baxter and Deke are guilt-ridden: Deke from his prior big mistake, and Baxter from needing to solve this case out of pride. And whether Sparma’s the same guy in both cases or not, both detectives want closure badly, scanty evidence be damned. Which is a dangerous place for detectives to end up. Will Baxter end up having his life eaten away in the same way Deke did?

three men in interrogation room in "The Little Things"
(L–R) Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), and Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

‘Seven’ and ‘Zodiac’

“The Little Things” contains very little of the horror and dread of its predecessors; it’s watchable in terms of the detective work, but ho-hum. It leaves you with nothing. “Seven” left me swearing I’d never see another serial-killer movie again, and “Zodiac” reminded me why.

The casting is interesting; the three leads are all Oscar-winners. Washington proves, yet again, that, he’s a Teflon actor and always manages to remain relatively unbesmirched by bad material.

man with pistol in car in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) preparing to meet a serial killer, in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

Rami Malek might have been born to play Freddy Mercury, but I still feel like he joins certain current owners of social media platforms along with certain modern-day rocket scientists and technology founders in the are-they-maybe-aliens? department. It’s probably just his proclivity for lingering, Gollum-like stares that feel like only someone with x-ray vision would make. In this particular role, it also looks like there may be a few vestigial Freddy Mercury mannerisms bleeding into his Jim Baxter characterization.

two men and police tape in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, L) and Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

Jared Leto continues to be the prettiest leading-man ever (image-google him in “Freaks and Geeks”) to make a career as a character actor specializing in freaks. Some are bad freaks (the Joker in “Suicide Squad”), some are brilliant freaks (Rayon in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”), but he clearly took the title of his first big gig to heart.

two men on bridge at night in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, L) and Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

“The Little Things” is doing well at the box office; it probably caught a COVID cabin-fever boost, but it’s a low-rent-looking grimey affair, shot in tones of olive green with fluorescent-lighting highlights.

Add to that, desolate, melancholy settings of cheap hotels, seedy serial killer apartments, morgues, crime labs, and dusty LA highways. And Leto’s Sparma is the most charismatic character in the film.

All of that feeds into a subliminal background that, even if the action is passably stimulating, might end up depressing you. Which is why you might not want to add “The Little Things” to the growing stack of little quarantine things you’re already depressed about. I recommend trying The Epoch Times’s “Popcorn and Inspiration” film reviews, and searching for something more uplifting instead.

two men in two cars in "The Little Things"
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, L) and Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), in “The Little Things.” (Warner Bros.)

‘The Little Things’
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 29, 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch