Writer/director John Lee Hancock's screenplay for 'The Little Things' dates back to before he directed films like 'The Blind Side, 'Saving Mr Banks', 'The Founder' and 'The Highwaymen'. It even goes back to before he penned the screenplays for 'A Perfect World' and 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil', both for director Clint Eastwood. He actually wrote the script for 'The Little Things' at the beginning of the '90s. It took three decades to bring it to the screen (with Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito all attached to direct along the way), making it no longer a contemporary thriller but a period piece.
The film follows small town Deputy Sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington, 'Fences') who is sent to LA for some routine work and finds himself unofficially recruited by LA Sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, 'Bohemian Rhapsody') to help track down a killer menacing the city. Scraggly weirdo Jared Leto ('Suicide Squad') - or rather, his character, Albert Sparma - is involved in some way, but as tends to be the case with these things, it's a little more complicated than it seems. The investigation eventually unearths a lot of trauma for Washington's character that he hoped would stay buried.
Setting aside the prestige hook of having three Oscar winners headlining this movie, 'The Little Things' feels old-fashioned. It's a bunch of big stars making a kind of schlocky, one-off genre movie, the sort of stuff that made up the majority of the output of Hollywood between 1990 and 2008 (before IP-focused blockbusters took over). Washington has a slew of these in his filmography from back in the day, like 'The Bone Collector', 'Fallen' and 'Virtuosity'.
A lot of reviewers have already cited the similarities to 'Se7en', but 'The Little Things' is a rough patchwork of many influences that is just as indebted to Christopher Nolan's remake of 'Insomnia' and Sean Penn's 'The Pledge', which feature haggard cops haunted by past mistakes and elusive serial killers. There is also a little of the 1990 Dutch film 'Spoorloos' (later remade in United States as 'The Vanishing') woven into the film's DNA.
But stealing from the best does not a good movie make. The criminal investigation in John Lee Hancock's film swings between hyperrealistic and completely farcical. In one scene, the police delve into the legal minutiae of what does and does not taint a photo line-up, and moments later an unhinged off-duty cop from a different jurisdiction is just poking around a crime scene. There's also an inexplicable emphasis on food and eating. The movie tells the audience to look for "the little things", but instead of clues, there is a lot of milk, beer, roast beef, pizza, pineapple, jalapenos, orange juice, coffee, etc.
My personal favourite scene, set in a police interrogation room, sees Washington, who has won three Golden Globes, one Tony Award and two Oscars, grab Leto's crotch and yell: "His dick is harder than Chinese arithmetic!"
Meanwhile, the hackneyed dialogue sounds like Hancock tossed it aside without writing a second draft and found it lying in the back of the closet. My personal favourite scene, set in a police interrogation room, sees Washington, who has won three Golden Globes, one Tony Award and two Oscars, grab Leto's crotch and yell: "His dick is harder than Chinese arithmetic!" Leto later refers to Washington as Malek's "butt-buddy."
The film's biggest problem is the hazy motivations of the main characters. Washington's character gets the most backstory, but the rationale behind his actions is still paper-thin. Leto... if you've seen the trailers, you know that much of the movie's mystery is "did he or didn't he?" I can't decide if they pull this off brilliantly because his actions could fit either scenario, or if they failed spectacularly because, no matter if he's guilty or innocent, what he does makes not a lick of sense.
Faring worst of all is Malek, doing his "alien who just arrived and is trying to assimilate by staring at everything" thing. His character makes some absolutely perplexing choices throughout the movie. He oscillates from a Guy Pearce in 'L.A. Confidential'-type to a rookie asking Denzel what he thinks about everything to a frazzled cop obsessed with solving the case. But we never see how he progresses between these states. Show him drinking heavily! Show him looking through files all night long! Montages of research and detective work! Time passes but the audience never gets to see the deterioration of his mental state or descent into madness.
On the plus side, I dug the reoccurring city-at-night cinematography - I have no idea how Hancock and his DP got some of those nighttime shots, especially on the highway. It's a great example of how digital photography doesn't necessarily mean the image is washed-out if you have a good DP and colourist. I also liked the little musical riff that features prominently early on, which reminded me of Andrew Dickson's opening title theme for Mike Leigh's 'Naked', a recurring ostinato played on harp, driving the detectives forward, onward, downward. And it's always nice to watch Denzel Washington thinking/investigating/talking solemnly.
'The Little Things' is a diversion - not the worst way to kill two hours, and definitely a movie with some people in it. It's a shame there isn't more to recommend about it.