The Little Things
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Written by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt
The “brilliant but troubled” detective is a staple of mystery stories that’s almost as old as the genre itself. When we see him, there are a few characteristics he possesses that we are guaranteed to see: a Mysterious Past ™ , a lack of social niceties, a corkboard of some kind (usually with many strings connecting different pictures), and, often, an addiction of some kind. None of this is to say that featuring a brilliant but troubled detective is a bad thing, but it does beg a certain level of ingenuity. It’s not enough to say that a detective is brilliant but troubled, but finding new ways of expressing how a detective is brilliant and how they are troubled makes all the difference for making us invested in them.
It’s what makes The Little Things such a disappointing new entry in the serial killer genre. It has two very likeable leading men in Denzel Washington and Rami Malek, some surprisingly beautiful cinematography, and what feels like the first draft of an interesting premise. Its main problem is how much else of its screenplay (written by the film’s director, John Lee Hancock) also feels like a first draft.
Our hero, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) is this film’s troubled detective with the trademark Mysterious Past. Washington is a terrific actor, here giving an above-average performance. An above average performance from Washington is enough, however, to ensure that we don’t notice faults in the screenplay earlier. The power of his screen presence is enough that, whatever flaws the film might have, it at least takes some time to notice them. However, the details of Deke’s past are teased out and hinted at for far too long for the audience to remain interested. Rami Malek doesn’t fare much better as Washington’s co-star. Anyone who has seen Malek’s performance in the TV series Mr. Robot can attest that he is a riveting presence, with a highly expressive face that is matched by a deep monotone voice. It’s unfortunate then that Malek’s character, Jimmy Baxter, is given even less to do than Washington’s. We’re meant to believe that he becomes singularly obsessed with the murders that form the plot, but the screenplay never manages to convey his growing obsession in a way that feels believable or compelling.
In fact, there’s a good deal in the screenplay that doesn’t feel believable. Washington and Malek’s investigation leads them to suspect a man named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) of being the culprit responsible for the murders. This juncture is precisely when the quality of the screenplay begins to nosedive, with all of the principal players losing several IQ points in the process. An experienced police detective leaves a potential witness unattended to complete paperwork. Another takes a ride with an obviously menacing stranger. And characters withhold valuable information for no reason other than adding another dash of dramatic tension to the plot.
I could only sigh deeply when I finished The Little Things. Its cast and thematic content are the starting ingredients of what could have been a compelling murder mystery and the nature of the obsessions which haunt us. But it’s all undone by its lackluster screenplay and uninspiring direction. What a shame.