The Little Things is as basic as cop thrillers get. The IMDb plot description is “two cops track down a serial killer” and that’s very accurate because that is really all that happens. Though it tries to add layers to its characters and story, the film never reaches its full potential and instead ends up being a mildly captivating, overlong thriller with solid performances.
In The Little Things, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a burnt-out small town deputy who returns to his old routes in Los Angeles to help detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) nab a serial killer who has been terrorizing the area for years. But as they get deeper into their investigation, Baxter’s life begins to unravel and Deke must confront ghosts from his past that have haunted him for years.
There isn’t anything wrong with cop thrillers having simple plots, most of them generally do. But the great ones, like David Fincher’s Se7en or Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, have more to them than just the mystery at hand. They have layered characters, a gripping mystery, twists, turns, and originality to them. The Little Things lacks in all of these areas. The mystery is relatively interesting but also incredibly generic with hardly any twists or surprises. The film tries to shake us towards the end and pull the rug up from under us but it doesn’t completely land because it doesn’t feel earned. The big reveal doesn’t have any shock value to it and is more of a shrug.
The characters are the most frustrating part of The Little Things, as they have the potential to be really interesting, yet end up being paper thin. Deke is all about the little things. He looks at crime scenes with more detail than most detectives and is interested in things like what the victim had just eaten or about bite marks on a sandwich. I really like the idea of this, especially with the older, wiser Deke working with the younger Baxter, which could have added a nice dynamic between the two of them. But we don’t go deep enough into Deke’s methods of looking into the little things for it to matter. Deke is also a former Los Angeles detective who got so invested in this past case that it ruined his life, ended his marriage, and almost killed him. Baxter seems to be on the same path as Deke, yet they don’t utilize it better and should have focused on Deke trying to teach Baxter about the importance of family and the importance of taking care of yourself. Have we seen that before? Sure, but it adds a layer to our characters that is missing throughout the entire film.
But even with thin characters and a generic plot, I was still into most of the film. A large part of that has to do with the performances by Washington and Jared Leto, who plays the creep Deke and Baxter suspect is behind these killings. Denzel Washington can turn a nothing character into something and that’s exactly what he does here. Though Deke is a paper-thin character who could have been fleshed out more, Washington elevates the material and gives us a man who goes back to his old ways to solve a crime that has been haunting him for years. Washington wears the torment of Deke brilliantly. Jared Leto is in full creep mode in this one and it really worked for me. His character being vague added levels of mystery to the film. Leto’s strut, voice, and greasy hair all add to his unnerving character. Malek does an okay job, but he felt really miscast. I didn’t buy him as a hotshot detective and I didn’t buy him as a naive detective learning from Deke and I didn’t buy him as a man struggling to balance his job and family. Part of this is from the material, but Malek never elevates any of this and ends up being the clear weak link amongst the trio of Oscar winners.
Deke says in the film, “it’s the little things that get you caught.” For The Little Things, it’s the big things that stop it from being great. It’s missing layered characters, and a spark and originality in the plot, and needed an editor who would have cut the film down by twenty-or-so minutes. Still, a murder mystery thriller is a genre I will generally gravitate toward and with a pair of strong performances and a familiar, yet somewhat interesting mystery at the forefront, The Little Things makes for a solid, simple thriller.
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