A gritty and violent tale of depraved murders and the toll it takes on those who investigate them is not something you might expect from a filmmaker like John Lee Hancock, who’s most known for his more uplifting tales like The Rookie, The Blindside, and Saving Mr. Banks. But the director’s more recent films have shown a side of him with a bit more edge, like the ruthlessness of Michael Keaton’s businessman Ray Croc in The Founder, or his tale of two detectives in pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde in The Highwaymen.
Hancock returns to the realm of detective work once again with his latest, The Little Things. Written by him in the early 90s, the script passed through the hands of various directors, including Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Danny DeVito, and even Steven Spielberg before being shelved. But much like the characters of his film, the story continued to gnaw at the filmmaker until he finally decided to adapt it himself. Nearly 30 years in the making, the film marks the first major release of 2021 for Warner Bros. in an unprecedented year where they plan to add their new movies to HBO Max at the same time as their theatrical release.
The Little Things is a familiar tale of obsessed cops attempting to solve a grisly string of murders as it wears on their psyches. Denzel Washington stars as Deke, a Kern county deputy with a past best left behind him, who returns to his old stomping grounds of Los Angeles when a recent number of killings connects to a similar case he worked on years ago. He clashes with a younger detective named Jimmy - played by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek - who hogs the spotlight of the press and wants to solve the case himself. In their first interaction, he tells Deke to butt out of his business, but the two soon warm up to each other through a mutual determination to catch whoever’s responsible for the slaying.
The films crawls by with a methodical and creeping pace, focusing more on the mental states of its characters and creating a dreary, contemplative atmosphere. Hancock keeps the lights low and eerie as the detectives pore over gruesome photographs and bloody crime scenes. The director is obviously in no rush to begin putting the pieces together. Instead, he takes his time with shots of Washington’s deep frowns and Malek’s thousand-yard stare in order to better convey their frustrations and growing obsession. Deke is haunted - sometimes literally - by the ghosts of the mysterious killer’s victims. Jimmy is kept up at night by his genuine drive to seek justice for the victims’ families due to him having children of his own; something that was beaten out of Deke long ago. As the bodies pile up with no leads in sight, their obsessions threaten to become desperation.
The pace starts to speed up once a car mechanic / salesman called Albert Sparma - played by 30 Seconds to Mars frontman and Suicide Squad star Jared Leto - arrives and quickly makes himself the investigation’s prime suspect. As Deke and Jimmy interrogate Sparma, it’s increasingly clear that he’s toying with the two of them and having fun doing it. In a surprisingly subdued performance, Leto plays the character with just enough offbeat tones to give him an undercurrent of menace. But Hancock refuses to make things too obvious, and tosses various tiny pieces of evidence around to keep you questioning things until every character falls under equal suspicion. As Deke states to his newfound partner, “It’s the little things that get you caught.”
The Little Things evokes much of the work that we’re accustomed to seeing from David Fincher, who himself was inspired by the films of Alfred Hitcock and Martin Scorsese. Many comparisons have been made to Se7en (interestingly enough, Hancock’s script was written earlier) or Zodiac, which is fair considering the way those films also make their thrills more psychological than physical. Even so, Hancock still finds room to stage a genuinely frightening scene of the killer stalking his latest victim in the movie’s most nail-biting sequence.
The film’s Academy Award-winning trio of Washington, Malek, and Leto buoy it to its morally grey conclusion. While many elements of The Little Things may look and feel familiar to thrillers that have been done to death in the years since the film’s inception, fans of the genre may still find plenty to engross them thanks to that throwback style it provides.
The Little Things is now available to stream on HBO MAX