Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE LITTLE THINGS
Rated R, 126 minutes
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Filmmaker John Lee Hancock doesn’t let any of the little things go unnoticed in THE LITTLE THINGS, though there is plenty of subtext and ambiguity to decipher. The creepy chill of this engrossing portrait of male obsession, anxiety and regret is enough to make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand at attention with the devil he puts in the details, particularly when it comes to the dynamics of its lead trio. It transforms from being a brightly-lit homage to SEVEN, or other “The Rookie and Old Timer” procedurals (some of which have also starred Denzel Washington), into a singular cat-and-mouse thriller, scratching under the surface to dissect the psyches of these broken men.
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) is content living a solitary life as a Kern County Sherriff where the biggest crime is a shot-out “G” on their local Black Angus sign. His only companion is a stray dog that sporadically visits his remote double wide trailer home. But things change when his boss tasks him to return to Los Angeles County, Deke’s former stomping grounds, to fetch some evidence from their crime lab. While in town, Deke visits his former LAPD Captain and catches wind of serial killer on the loose. Someone has taken to stalking and killing young single women, and the mounting evidence suggests it may be tied to a cold case that continues to plague Deke’s conscience.
Arrogant newbie detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) has been given the assignment to find one woman who’s recently gone missing after her nightly jog. Given the eager recruit is out to make a name for himself, and with his department under intense scrutiny, it’s imperative he crack the case before anyone else is murdered. Jim asks Deke to lend his expertise to help gather the clues faster in order to find a suspect. However, Deke’s traumatic scars quickly resurface, walking amongst the dead and dying, visiting his old haunts and resuming his old habits. Even passing a convertible full of vibrant young women revives the guilt Deke deeply harbors over those victims he couldn’t save. Deke’s angst and Jim’s compulsive drive conjoin when potential suspect Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) is identified. And that’s where Hancock turns up the heat on this searing story.
It’s interesting that Hancock doesn’t take a hyper-stylized approach to the material. He lets his well-drawn characters and the actors’ performances stand out more than over-accentuated visuals. Sure, there’s some fog and a creepily-lit dank apartment where we can practically smell the putrid stank emanating from those walls, but it’s rare that he’ll bask in the narrative’s noir-adjacent leanings. Washington delivers refreshing work here, fully exploring his character’s observational nature, which provides a clever juxtaposition to Malek’s character. Their slightly contrasting dynamics give the narrative added introspect. Malek turns in an equally excellent performance, especially in scenes where he’s paired with Washington, as if he too is learning from a mentor. Leto imbues his creep (who looks like a greasy Jesus with sallow skin and beady shark eyes) with a dichotomous comedic side, weirdly wisecracking in uncomfortable situations.
Aesthetic nuance seeps into the corners of the picture. Michael Corenblith’s production design echoes thematic symbolism, utilizing differing shades of green to reflect the shading of the character of these men. From an off-putting pea soup green paint slathered on Sparma’s apartment walls, to the dark forest green thickly coating the walls of Deke’s motel room as well as the neon sign that illuminates his weary soul attempting rest, these shades applied to their sanctuaries plays like an extension of the characters themselves. The representation of this color, specifically when reflecting Deke, is akin to the green light that plagues Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby,” where a glowing beacon that once represented hope is perverted into disillusionment. Deke’s eternal hope is to solve the case and gain peace of mind – but he begins with disenchantment, and the mystery is whether he’ll finally be able to grasp that light.
Deke’s journey is also mirrored in the soundtrack that plays in the background of a few scenes. The radio station he loves is also about to experience a transition, changing from soothing Motown love songs to unrelenting talk radio. Not only does this feel reflective of the era and setting, but most importantly, it also serves as possible foreshadowing of profound personal change.
The narrative’s margins are occasionally over-detailed. After an intense cold open featuring a young woman driving alone at night almost getting kidnapped, there comes unnecessary padding over-explaining why Deke is tasked to return to his former department, without adding much else to why he’s compelled to stay beyond his lingering unresolved reasons. Thankfully all the exposition doesn’t drag down the film. There are also quite a few contrivances that pop up, but we forgive those convoluted aspects since it’s far more interesting to see where the story is leading. The climactic third act commentary, which digs deeper into SEVEN’s provocative sentiments (asking “What if John Doe messed with Detectives Somerset and Mills even more?”), feels a wee bit rushed and truncated. Yet it brilliantly balances on a razor’s edge with its ambiguities.
With a superb atmospheric score by Thomas Newman that leaves us just as melancholy and haunted as the characters themselves, the film’s thought-provoking designs leave a tell-tale burn.
Grade: 4 out of 5
THE LITTLE THINGS opens in select theaters and begins streaming on HBOMax on January 29.