Review: ‘The Little Things’ (2021), starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto

January 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rami Malek, Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Little Things”

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Culture Representation: Taking place in California in 1990, the crime drama “The Little Things” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: Two police detectives with contrasting backgrounds team up to find a serial killer.

Culture Audience: “The Little Things” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and dull crime movies that waste the considerable talent of the starring cast members.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take three Oscar-winning actors and put them in a crime thriller written and directed by filmmaker who has a solid track record of making crowd-pleasers. What could possibly go wrong? When it comes to the disappointing crime drama “The Little Things,” it’s not so much what went wrong but what should have gone right. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (whose best-known movie is 2009’s “The Blind Side”), “The Little Things” ultimately fails to be exciting or innovative, considering that it stars the very talented Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto.

Almost everything about “The Little Things” has been done before in other movies and done much better. There are key parts of the movie that will definitely get comparisons to director David Fincher’s 1995 classic “Seven,” written by Andrew Kevin Walker and starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey. The irony is that “The Little Things” was written by Hancock back in the early 1990s, before “Seven” (a far superior film) was released.

There are some noticeable similarities in both movies. “Seven” and “The Little Things” are about two cops (one middle-aged, one younger) who team up to hunt down a serial killer. The prime suspect is a mysterious creep who leads them in a cat-and-mouse styled investigation where he keeps them guessing about crucial aspects of the killing spree. (Freeman and Pitt were the cops in “Seven,” while Spacey was the suspected serial killer.)

In “The Little Things,” which takes place over a few days in October 1990, Washington plays the more experienced and older cop named Joe “Deke” Deacon, while Malek is the younger cop named Jim “Jimmy” Baxter. Leto has the role of a sleazy loner named Albert Sparma, who becomes the prime suspect in a string of murders of young women in Southern California. Unfortunately, there’s so much about the story that’s unimaginative and sluggishly paced that there’s very little suspense throughout the story.

The opening scene of “The Little Things” looks like something out of a formulaic horror movie: A young woman is driving by herself at night on a deserted road somewhere in the Los Angeles area. She gets tailgated and then chased by a mysterious driver. She panics and drives off of the road to a diner, whose outside lights are on, but she finds out too late that the diner is closed and no one is there. She runs off into a desert area, and the mystery stalker gives chase on foot. Luckily, she’s able to run back out onto the road and flags down a passing truck in order to get rescued.

Viewers later find out that her name is Tina Salvatore (played by Sofia Vassilieva), and police think that she narrowly escaped from a serial killer who has been targeting young women and stabbing them to death. However, most of the murder victims have been prostitutes, and Tina doesn’t fit that profile. She didn’t even get a good look at the guy who tried to kill her and never heard him talk, so the chances are slim to none that Tina can identify this criminal. Tina, just like most of the female characters in this film, is essentially sidelined. Except for a brief scene later in the movie, this key witness is never seen again.

The women with speaking roles in this movie only serve one of three purposes: to be a crime victim; a current or former love interest; or someone who is subservient to men. These one-dimensional characters include Jimmy’s dutiful and adoring wife Ana (played by Isabel Arraiza); Deke’s ex-wife Marsha (played by Judith Scott), who works as a medical examiner and does whatever Deke asks her to do; and Los Angeles police detective Jamie Estrada (played by Natalie Morales), who follows the lead of her male colleagues and has a very thankless role in the investigation.

Deke is a deputy who works in the Kern County Sheriff Department, which is about 133 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a much more rural area than Los Angeles, where Deke used to work as a sergeant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide department until he left under a cloud of bad circumstances. While investigating this serial killer, Deke was suspended and had what’s described by a former colleague as a dangerous, stress-related emotional “meltdown.” He also had a heart attack.

Deke’s abrupt departure from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department caused some hard feelings from his former co-workers there. One of them is Deke’s former boss Carl Farris (played by Terry Kinney), the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s homicide captain who ended up replacing Deke with Jimmy. Carl describes Deke’s exit from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department as Deke being “run out” of the department, while Deke describes it as choosing to leave on his own.

It just so happens that Deke has to go back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department to pick up evidence for a robbery case that he’s working on in Kern County. And what do you know, one of the first people Deke meets when he goes back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department is Jimmy, who’s annoyed that Deke’s truck is blocking Jimmy’s parking space. It’s not exactly a “meet cute” moment, but people who won’t know anything about this movie before watching it can immediately tell from this scene that Deke and Jimmy will end up spending a lot of time together.

Deke finds out there’s going to be delay in getting the evidence he needs, so his former boss Carl sarcastically tells Deke he can kill some time by catching up with his former colleagues. One of the few people in the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department who’s still willing to be cordial to Deke is a detective named Sal Rizoli (played by Chris Bauer), who tells Deke over a meal at a diner that things just aren’t the same since Deke left the department. Sal says that the current department employees are “a bunch of nancies” who’ve “got no soul” and the department head honchos have “weeded all the heart out of the place.” Sal describes Jimmy as a “good cop, a college boy, a bit of a holy roller.”

Jimmy and Deke couldn’t have more different lifestyles. Deke is a divorced father of two adult daughters, and he lives by himself in a small, ramshackle house out in the desert. Jimmy is happily married with two young daughters, and he lives in a comfortably middle-class and well-kept home. Deke is not religious and is very jaded about life. Jimmy is supposedly religious and “by the book,” but this shoddily written movie doesn’t really show proof of that, because Jimmy ends up breaking all kinds of laws in his obsessive quest to solve the murders and arrest Albert.

Through a series of implausible circumstances, Jimmy invites Deke to help him investigate the murders, even though Deke is only supposed to be in town for a few days and the cases are out of Deke’s jurisdiction. The evidence that Deke is supposed to bring back to Kern County for an upcoming court case ends up being completely ignored in the rest of the story. That’s how bad this movie is.

Albert becomes a prime suspect because he works for a small-business appliance store that was called to repair a refrigerator in a young woman’s apartment. She ended up getting slaughtered on the day that Albert was supposed to be there for the repair appointment. And so, Deke and Jimmy immediately zero in on oddball Albert after some snooping around at his seedy apartment building. He’s also on their radar because eight years ago, Albert confessed to one of the murders and knew certain details that the killer would know, but he wasn’t held responsible for the murder because he had an alibi when the crime happened.

“The Little Things” wants to keep viewers guessing over whether Albert is the serial killer or if he’s just a nutjob who wants the police to think that he’s the culprit. There are too many plot holes to mention, including how the movie never explains how in a large urban area such as Los Angeles, the police are so sure that all of these murders are being done by the same person. In “Seven,” the serial killer left very specific clues so that law enforcement knew the same person was committing the murders. In “Little Things,” there is no such proof.

Instead, the movie is more concerned about showing the over-used crime movie trope of the “world-weary cop” partnered with the “eager-beaver cop” and how their personalities clash before they learn to work together for the same cause. What Jimmy and Deke have in common is that they’re both obsessed with finding the killer. Getting back on this serial killer case also seems to trigger something disturbing in Deke, because he starts to hallucinate seeing the dead women come to life in his dumpy motel room and in other places. And Deke talks to the corpses. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Washington does a passable job of playing Deke as a cynical and emotionally wounded cop who’s haunted by his past, but “The Little Things” is a very forgettable entry to his impressive body of work. Malek is stuck playing a generic character who makes an implausible switch from being stringent and uptight to being a rogue cop who breaks the law with Deke. Among other law violations, Jimmy acts as a lookout/getaway driver when Deke intrudes in Albert’s apartment, while Albert is away, to look for and possibly steal evidence. Any cop or good screenwriter would know that this illegal break-in would make the evidence inadmissible in court, but it’s in this ludicrous movie anyway.

Leto makes the most effort to bring some unpredictability and nuance to his Albert character, but his performance is hindered by the substandard screenplay that doesn’t give Albert much to do except act like a weird scumbag and annoy Deke and Jimmy. And if these “detectives” are so great, why haven’t they investigated Albert’s activities over time to possibly tie him to the murders? Doing a couple of stakeouts just wouldn’t pass muster in the real world of homicide detective work.

“The Little Things” wants viewers to believe that these murders can be solved at lightning-fast speed during the few days that Deke is in Los Angeles. But ironically, the film moves at a sluggish and mind-numbing pace. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is often cringeworthy too. At one point, Jimmy tells Deke when they have one of their personality clashes: “If you piss on my leg and call it rain, we’re through.”

The movie gets its title because Deke has a mantra that “the little things” count in an investigation, and criminals often get caught because of “the little things” they do when they make mistakes. In other words, Deke is one of those cops who believes in the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” Unfortunately, “The Little Things” is very careless with details, and a more appropriate title for the movie is “The Big Plot Holes.”

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Little Things” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on January 29, 2021.