As the golden age of television surged in recent years, an abundance of crime shows focussing on detectives investigating homicides have emerged. HBO has been at the forefront of the conversation with acclaimed series such as True Detective, The Night Of, and The Outsider capturing both the killers' inner lives and the investigators tasked with solving the crime.
We've poured over twists, and extensive monologues as each episode introduced more background into our lead detectives' lives and the killer's mind games, which often lead to horrifying outcomes. In fact, The Sinner on USA Network, in its most recent season, saw the assumed killer Jamie played by Matt Bomer, convince Bill Pullman's Detective Harry Ambrose to be buried alive in a coffin. The criminal often wants to be found, just to play with the glory of provocation and recognition.
John Lee Hancock's latest HBO Max offering, The Little Things, resolves to unveil a mystery that may have been better served as a limited series. When looking at this film alongside successful episodic structures, the story strains under being too familiar about two detectives trying to catch a psychotic murderer. As the plot unfolds, Hancock is deliberately evasive with details. The three lead characters allude to unnerving backstories, but they're never fully exposed, and we only see the consequences of actions rather than how we got to this point.
Denzel Washington, however, is in top form, giving his outcast detective character more weight than the film can handle. On the other hand, Rami Malek underplays his emotions with an elusiveness that makes it difficult to understand his mind's workings. While the film doesn't achieve all it sets out to do, some haunting sequences are expertly staged. But The Little Things, unfortunately, feels dated.
In 1990, Joe' Deke' Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a former LA Cop, now working in Bakersfield, California. He lost his marriage, had a triple bypass, and was replaced in his position within the force almost five years prior. However, Deke gets pulled back into a case of a serial killer terrifying the city of Los Angeles, helping his replacement Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) to solve the lingering case once and for all.
The roads seem to lead to a man named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), whose picture is firmly reserved in the dictionary under the word 'psycho'. Deke tries to continue investigating but is doing so under his own volition and much to Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney) and Detective Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer). He also becomes reacquainted with coroner Flo Dunigan (Michael Hyatt), who helped hide something from Deke's past. As the case unfolds and Deke and Baxter dial-in on Sparma's life, relationships are tested, and memories long forgotten resurface.
The Little Things is a timid thriller that struggles to answer its own questions about its characters in the runtime it has. Denzel Washington and Jared Leto excel in their parts, but the rest of the film suffers from being too vague on significant plot points. It almost feels as if Denzel is in a more complex film. In an interrogation scene with Leto and Malek, Washington's Deke saunters slowly around the room before erupting in a bout of anger. Washington carries Deke with a world on his shoulders, but he tinkers on the edge of an eruption, and it's a convincing performance. We know he has ties to this case, but we don't learn enough about the events leading to his downfall.
While there isn't much of an investigation, exploring evidence from crime scenes or interviewing key witnesses, there are many shots of Baxter and Deke driving on LA freeways. John Lee Hancock's script doesn't precisely answer many questions about Denzel's tortured detective or give context to Jared Leto's wide-eyed Albert Sparma, though what seems to work is the building of tension and suspense.
There were times I gasped out loud in anticipation of a scare or a poor decision made by a character. In fact, the opening sequence is an exercise in being stalked by a predator. A young woman (played by Medium's Sofia Vassilieva) drives on an isolated stretch of highway and is chased by what can only be assumed is a killer on the hunt. As she runs for her life, falling over dirt piles and screaming for help, the fear of this faceless maniac has been instilled, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The script may have bitten off more than it could chew in separating itself from series addressing similar subjects. The film may have benefitted from simplifying its story and laying out its narrative threads early on to explore its themes of secrecy, loss, and redemption more aggressively. It's the little things that were missing, and carried together, would've added more weight to the story.
Now available to stream on HBO Max.