“The Little Things” is a time capsule that may have been better off staying buried. Originally written as a book in 1993 by John Lee Hancock, “The Little Things” released its movie adaptation on January 29, 2021, streaming on services such as HBO Max. The movie tells the story of haunted cop Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) and L.A.P.D. hotshot Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) as they desperately pursue a serial killer and fixate on their prime suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Chock full of cliches, “The Little Things” feels less like a magnetic, gritty detective flick and more of a hastily-constructed time capsule––cobbled together from genre cliches and vague ‘90s aesthetics, lacking nuance and substance. Spoilers ahead.
Despite attempting to refresh beloved ‘90s thriller genre tropes, “The Little Things” falls under formulaic predictability. While many of its solid plot points may have been fresh when they were first written in 1993, the inundation of the crime thriller genre with similar tropes now makes these points feel weak and repetitive. For instance, Deke’s and Jimmy’s set-up as foils, two characters who contrast and parallel each other, seems compelling at first, with Deke serving throughout the film as a reflection of what Jimmy could become. However, the film’s attempts to rigidly parallel Deke’s backstory with Jimmy’s character arc renders supposedly surprising reveals, (such as Deke faking the discovery of the red barrette) predictable as viewers already have knowledge of Deke’s backstory. In a nostalgic genre marked by often formulaic storytelling, using a few tropes to ground the viewer may not be a bad decision. Some common tropes the film uses are the haunted cops, the young murdered girls, the ambiguously-disordered fifth-amendment-pleading main suspect, the sex worker victims, and the troubled family life, just to name a few. However, when these tropes are used less to anchor the story and rather build the story itself, the film becomes predictable and uncreative, as is the case in “The Little Things.”
Another one of the film’s main issues is its love of aesthetics with no substance to back it up, writing itself as a caricature of its own genre. There are long stretches of witty banter at stakeout scenes, Hollywood-deep ponderings on the responsibilities of detective work, and a procedural gloss CSI-viewers having likely been seen thousands of times. Perhaps the most egregious instance of overusing this “formula,” however, is seen in Jared Leto’s character: the creepy true-crime buff and prime suspect Sparma. Sparma, with his greasy black hair, dead eyes, and monotonous hollowness, looks like the quintessential Hollywood killer. He is meant to come off as creepy, mysterious, and two steps ahead of the investigators but twice as opaque. But instead, with an exaggerated flat affect and stiff mannerisms, Leto’s over-acting combined with Sparma’s over-dramatic characterization molds him into some kind of campy thriller villain. He becomes a flash of colors, sounds, and mannerisms that add up to nothing but an abstraction, the blurry amalgamation of archetypal serial killers in the long crime thriller canon.
“The Little Things” leaves audiences with a muted sense of what the film wants to be: a satisfying throwback to the heyday of its genre, a strong return to something familiar, with a beguiling story beneath it all. But beyond its replication of an aesthetic long overdone, audience members are left with a dissatisfying narrative. However, despite its shortfalls, the film does have its moments. Denzel Washington’s performance as Joe Deacon grounds the audience and provides a steady point of view to digest the story through. The soundtrack, cinematography, and atmosphere all feel tonally in-keeping with what the film tries to accomplish, and hits the crime-procedural aesthetic right on the nail. As for all else, “The Little Things” is a star-studded let-down, too concerned with chasing its genre than creating a good story. Perhaps the film should have taken a page out of its own book and paid more attention to the “little things” in its own story.
This film receives a 2.5/5 for being a enjoyable watch, although tropey, unoriginal, and shallow.