The Daily Gamecock

Review: 'The Little Things' boasts powerful performances; disappointing start to 2021 cinema

<p>Rami Malek, left, Jared Leto, center, and Denzel Washington talk in a scene from "The Little Things".&nbsp;</p>

Rami Malek, left, Jared Leto, center, and Denzel Washington talk in a scene from "The Little Things". 

Movie: “The Little Things”

Release date: Jan. 29, 2021

Director: John Lee Hancock

Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes

Genre: Thriller

Columnist's rating: C-

In many ways, "The Little Things" is a perfect encapsulation of everything Warner Bros. has come to represent in the movie industry in the past year: lifeless and uninviting. This detective story that feels as if it was tailor-made to have mass appeal to garner clicks on a streaming service, but it offers nothing beyond its surface-level intrigue.

Denzel Washington plays a former police detective named Joe Deacon who has been relegated to being a normal cop in a low-stress position outside of Los Angeles. He is haunted by a dark past but returns to Los Angeles to help detective Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek, solve a homicide case in which Jared Leto’s Albert Sparma is the prime suspect.

Starting with the positives of the film, the interplay between the three lead characters is where "The Little Things" shines. Malek’s character in particular is torn between his gut instinct and following the process of a thorough detective. He is consistently skeptical of Washington’s Deacon and communicates most of his thoughts with expressive looks, thanks to the God-given gift of an incredible jawline.

Leto plays into his strengths as an actor and makes Sparma properly unnerving without the film needing to reveal if he is the killer. Whether or not he did it is fairly inconsequential to the plot, as an appreciated factor is that "The Little Things" does not give answers and leaves the audience in a state of ambiguity.

Where problems arise with this film is in the depth of its world and characters, which barely scratches the surface of the potential of its story.

"The Little Things" is set in Los Angeles in the 1990s, a very distinct time and place that has been depicted on film countless times, but it never feels truly alive. One example is traffic, a prominent factor in any Los Angeles movie, that just does not exist in this movie outside of one quick shot, despite multiple driving sequences.

Entirely too much time is spent on driving and stakeout sequences, during which Washington and Malek have some interesting dialogue, but the film fails in these sequences to give the audience any understanding of these characters' values or who they are as human beings. This would not be such a big deal if the setting they were observing were visually engaging, but it's awfully flat.

The editing does not do director John Lee Hancock any favors. Sequences feel long and drawn out, and within those sequences, the cutting is so frantic that it does not let the actors provide the proper characterization the film needs.

A particularly unearned scene sees Washington's character reunite with his ex-wife, which should be cathartic at this point in the film. At one point he responds to a question with the phrase: “You know me”. This might be true for his ex-wife, but it's jarring to the audience, which does does not feel as if it knows him; he could be referring to any emotion or thought.

The most egregious flaw of "The Little Things" is its inability to place the viewer inside the mind of the detective and killer. Films from the 1980s, such as Michael Mann’s "Manhunter," do an exceptional job at visually cluing the audience into what the detective is thinking, giving viewers classic show-don’t-tell storytelling.

"The Little Things" misses the mark in both places: It cannot show or tell.

In an interrogation scene, which should have an incredible amount of tension, Washington's character has an outburst that is intended to be the climax of the confrontation. Instead it feels jarring because the visual language did not communicate he was getting upset beforehand.

There’s decent acting to be enjoyed from all three leads, but for a film called "The Little Things," it does a poor job at paying attention to them.