At their best, crime dramas can be an intense experience as police and criminals engage in a cat-and-mouse game. The films are usually on the side of the cops, but showing the frailties of those supposedly on the right side of the law has become a popular aspect of many modern movies in the ever-expanding genre.
In The Little Things, it’s the capability of the ones doing the investigating that’s put under a microscope. Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) works for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, but he is confronted with his past when he’s sent on an errand to his old stomping ground with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. It’s clear from his chilly reception that things did not end well there, although he doesn’t let that stop him from inserting himself into a new investigation.
A series of women either have been murdered or gone missing, and the similarities to a case Joe handled when he was with the department are striking. He gloms on to Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) to track the new case, and the two immediately find common ground in their dedicated-to-a-fault mentalities. As they hone in on their prime suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), their dogged personalities prove to be both a help and hinderance to the pursuit.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, the film maintains a nice rhythm throughout. Although both Joe and Det. Baxter appear to have what it takes to be good cops, Hancock includes just enough scenes to plant doubt into the viewers’ minds. He doles out meager information about Sparma, with what is shown being more than enough to view him as supremely creepy, although whether that qualifies him to be a killer is called into question.
The tropes of the genre keep the film going even when the story falters a bit. Hancock includes more than a few narrative leaps in logic, and it’s only because of similar films that have come before and talent of the cast that the missteps don’t stop the story’s momentum. The downtrodden cop looking for redemption is a cliché almost as old as film itself, but the movie features plenty of moments that help Joe and the story itself overcome that familiarity.
At 66, Washington can no longer move like he once could, but he still has the presence that few others can offer. The way he narrows his eyes and seems to consider every word before saying it are just two of the many ways he elevates his role. Malek is an acquired taste. His type of acting doesn’t seem to fit well here, as he doesn’t have the gravitas or life experience to be completely believable. Leto, on the other hand, has a long history of being disturbing in different roles, and he makes the most of his limited screentime.
The Little Things, the first of Warner Bros’ 2021 slate to go directly to HBO Max, is a solid if imperfect entry in the crime drama genre. It offers little that fans haven’t seen before, but some fine filmmaking and great acting make it a worthwhile experience.
The Little Things will debut in theaters and on HBO Max on January 29.