Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) used to be the Los Angeles Police Force’s top detective. Used to be: Five years ago, a momentary decision proved momentous, and Deacon traded in his LAPD shield for a Kern County sheriff’s badge and started walking the mean streets of Bakersfield. Kern County is a good place to go if you’re looking to hide from your past. But sooner or later, the past catches up, and the serial killer cold case that drove Deacon out in the first place has heated up. Once again, Deacon finds himself in the city of angels.
Set in 1990, The Little Things from writer/director John Lee Hancock is a neo-noir cop drama that feels like true crime fan fiction. Not only does watching The Little Things fail to enlighten police procedure or criminal psychology, the entire movie indulges in the fantasy that a cop can only solve the crime and put the bad guys away if they go rogue and play by no one’s rules but their own. Does The Little Things condone such behavior? Not really. It’s complicated.
That complication lies in detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek). He’s the guy who replaced Deacon, and judging by his suits, Baxter’s either gunning for an FBI position or a job as a Brooks Brother model. Trying to go it his way, Baxter quickly realizes Deacon has a head start and hitches his wagon to the guy who has little regard for jurisdiction. That leads them to Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who—with his long stringy black hair, bloated gut, and duck waddle—enters the movie as a ready-made creep. Sparma likes spending his free days frequenting strip clubs and buying fast food for prostitutes. He also loves tracking violent crimes, keeping tabs on the police, and looking off to the side and into the distance when he talks to someone. Malex’s Baxter also has a habit of looking at every one askance, which makes for some odd eyelines when Baxter and Sparma share a scene.
The creepy guy with a weird fixation, the cop who let his job burn his life to the ground, the detective on the rise trying to hold to some semblance of humanity—it’s well-tread territory and feels every bit it. At least Hancock does a good enough job revealing information in dribs and drabs while Washington holds on to the movie’s secrets as long as he can. He makes the movie work, even if his character is the kind of detective who asks a lot of meaningless questions. “The little things,” he calls them: The stuff the trips up criminals.
Unfortunately, none of these little things amount to anything significant. Ditto for the movie, which plods along to an uninspired conclusion that fails to deliver on its true crime/neo-noir premise. Those movies have lots of little things—period details, character traits, and snappy dialogue—that flesh out the world and make dark matter enjoyable. Without them, it’s just an endless slog and a thousand-yard stare.
The Little Things (2021)
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock
Produced by John Lee Hancock, Mark Johnson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 127 minutes, Opens Jan. 29, 2021, in theaters (where available) and on HBO Max.