Monday 16 August 2021

Movie Review: The Little Things (2021)

A serial killer investigation mystery, The Little Things aims for a dark and depressing vibe. Despite a stellar cast, the mood is undermined by a frequently shaky script.

The setting is California in 1990. Bakersfield Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) drives to Los Angeles to collect evidence and finds the city gripped by the case of a serial killer targeting young women. The case reminds Joe of an unsolved triple murder from years prior that ended his career as a star Los Angeles detective. When another woman is found dead in her apartment, Deacon prolongs his stay and teams up with detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) to try and apprehend the killer.

A known sexual predator is arrested but proves to be a dead end, while another woman disappears after a jog and is feared to be the latest victim. Deacon's sleuthing leads him to suspect appliance repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who is interrogated but reveals nothing. Under increasing pressure to stop the killings, Deacon and Baxter initiate round-the-clock surveillance to try and find evidence connecting Sparma with the murders.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things is a collection of good ideas that don't quite gel. Deacon's troubled background and obsession with the case that broke him provides good contextual fuel, his complicated relationships with ex-colleagues, including coroner Flo Dunigan (the actress Michael Hyatt), providing an organically shredded texture. With this solid foundation the plot threatens to spark into a good psychological thriller, but unfortunately never ignites. 

Hancock is unable to meaningfully push deep into any of the avenues available to him, starting with a poor definition of Baxter's character. Rami Malek appears lost in the role, Baxter somehow an ace detective yet apparently incompetent when it comes to making deductions, finding evidence, and targeting suspects. He is too quick to welcome Deacon onto his turf, and later disintegrates with alarming speed into a mess of bad decisions.

Meanwhile Leto's Sparma takes a long time to join proceedings as a primary suspect, but is then not menacing enough, speaking in circles and happy to lead the detectives on a merry dance of non-confessions. Not enough is known about the killer's frame of mind or motives to build a threatening profile, and the victims remain abstract. Hancock lingers at one murder scene but does not generate empathy for any of the women, past or present. The climax is a particular let-down, all the narrative weaknesses coming together and sinking into literal and metaphorical holes. 

Despite a tendency to over-exaggerate mouth gestures, Denzel Washington is in stellar form and almost rescues the film. But when many little things don't work, everything suffers.

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