The Little Things has a solidly crafted visual aesthetic, an ominous and enticing antagonist, and for the most part provides sufficient engaging material in the lead up to its conclusion. But herein lies the problem, that is all this film ultimately achieves. In noir films, a lot needs to go right in the balancing act between mystery, tension, and payoff.
In this crime noir we follow the character of “Deke” or Deacon (Denzel Washington), a deputy officer returning to LA on police business only to revisit a cold case he left behind; Deke is a solitary man and one of those lone-wolf characters neo-noirs love so much. His “vibrant” personality is especially apparent when spending 40 minutes of the film in a silent car with him. If you haven’t already figured it out, Deke is as equally uninteresting as he is driven to solve this case; so… very. Deke clearly has a tragic past and throughout the film we’re drip fed snippets of it so we can come to understand who he is — trust me, it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately by the time we truly learn about his past the film has come to a close. His development begins as the film ends, in a sense. This leaves behind only Baxter (Raimi Malek), he’s a sergeant who’s literally filling Deke’s old position at the station. Baxter is a family man and about as driven as Deke is to solving the case. Throughout this film Deke and Baxter have a sort of master and protégé relationship that functions well enough. If you’ve gathered thus far that I’m not particularly enthused by the characters then your instinct is correct. Raimi and Denzel do respectable enough jobs here, the limiting factor is ultimately their character writing.
Thankfully, respite is found in the antagonist (Jared Leto) — Leto provides a fun and excitedly creepy performance that simply overshadows every other character in the film, consequently every other performance too. Yes, this is the kind of film that is at its best when its antagonist is on-screen. Leto, who has a history of “going deep” into his roles most certainly didn’t hold back here either. Just like his maniacal character appeared to be enjoying getting pursued, it almost felt as though Leto himself was enjoying every moment on-screen.
The Little Things is influenced by a veritable stack of crime neo-noirs, western thrillers, and slow-burn dramas. The shadowy night-lit city streets of Los Angeles feel reminiscent of Collateral (2004), the “buddy-cop” styled grouping of a newbie and seasoned vet that’s “seen it all” is rooted in genre films like Seven (1995). It borrows aspects of various films and readjusts them to fit within its narrative. This is a perfectly natural process that all writers and directors employ; but there’s inevitable consequences when a film has relied too heavily on its source of inspiration. Namely that the film must now build a self-sufficient identity of its own and if it does not, it shall consequently be compared to the identities it is most closely imitating.
The Little Things had many moments it could’ve formed a rigid identity of its own; it had the opportunity to either make a statement that felt impactful or construct a mystery that gets the blood pumping. There were genuine attempts here by writer-director John Lee Hancock to string together themes that could bind this narrative. Hancock went all-in on expanding upon the classic cop trope of “being too consumed by the job”, it was frankly the primary theme and while being uninventive it worked well enough for Deke’s character. But that’s not all, other themes were also attempted, particularly there was an overt and out of place attempt at adding religious subtext throughout the film, most of which was clumsily stuffed into the dialogue, almost indiscriminately. This film does not excel at producing interesting overarching thematics; if anything, the themes felt excessively artificial.
If the screenwriting or performances don’t keep you engaged into what is happening on-screen then maybe the ominous cinematography will. DoP, John Schwartzman, collaborates with Director, John Lee Hancock, again and throws himself in the crime noir genre where the tone and tension rely heavily on the lighting, frame composition and the movement of the camera. Schwartzman effectively establishes the atmosphere and the visual aesthetic of the film right from the prologue there’s an unsettling feeling of dreariness that sets the tone. While the frame composition and camera movement can be interesting and tone-defining, it can all begin to blur together as there are consistent repetitive sequences set up by the plot with little changes in how they capture it. You may lose your attention at some point in The Little Things, but the technical team behind the camera try their best to help sustain it.
It is quite easy to identify that the film takes place in Los Angeles; this is not through any showcase of well-known Los Angeles landmarks but simply, establishing shots of a smart selection of environments that capture Los Angeles. Sets have clearly been altered to replicate a 1990’s Los Angeles; however, they are compelling enough due to sparse infusions of obvious 1990-00 props. For any crime-thriller film, a key aspect is tension. Unfortunately, this aspect was not achieved through the score as composer, Thomas Newman, failed to create or build any tension with his musical pieces. However, one thing I felt Thomas Newman did right was creating a sense or mystery through a key piano piece that was played throughout the film. This ominous tune felt appropriate until it began repeating constantly throughout the first hour of the film before switching out to a guitar based piece for the second hour. The result? Both pieces ultimately detract from the experience.
“It’s the little things” — yes, it certainly is, but in this case there are some quite major ones too. The Little Things functions and exists as a noir crime film and not much beyond that. It has a series of targets lined up ready to be knocked down in spectacular fashion, but it either struggles to see these opportunities or was blind to them to begin with. This perfectly serviceable crime film is worth a single watch.