Combustible Celluloid
 
With: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva
Written by: John Lee Hancock
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating: R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity
Running Time: 127
Date: 01/29/2021
IMDB

The Little Things (2021)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All 'Things' Considered

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Lee Hancock's The Little Things is the second Warner Bros. picture — after Wonder Woman 1984 — to open simultaneously in theaters (wherever those may be) and on HBO Max.

Despite the controversy over Warner Bros.' deal, it could be a good thing for this particular film, given the somewhat jarring effect of its third act.

Viewers that choose to observe COVID-19 safety precautions and watch The Little Things at home will benefit from the option to go back and press "play" once again to help smooth things out.

Screenwriters are taught to establish the rules of each particular movie within its first ten minutes, and no later than 20 minutes. Even if there are "no rules," that is still a rule that must be established.

Tightly crafted movies like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense unveil their perfect twists thanks to their adherence to their specific rules. And when viewers play the films backwards in their heads, everything clicks together.

Everything also clicks together in reverse for The Little Things, but the twist isn't quite so flawlessly executed.

However, to be clear, this movie isn't about a jaw-dropping plot reveal, but rather a deepening of its main character.

Joe 'Deke' Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a deputy sheriff working in Bakersfield, California. He's packed on a few pounds and seems pretty burnt-out as he investigates crimes like a vandalized sign on the roof of a steakhouse.

His boss orders him to drive into Los Angeles to pick up a piece of evidence. He balks, but orders are orders.

Once there, he receives a lukewarm reception from various members of the LAPD. He also finds that his evidence is tangled up in some red tape, forcing him to stay longer than planned.

The slick, young detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), becomes interested in the older cop, especially after, invited to a murder scene, Deke discovers an essential clue.

In essence, there's a serial killer on the loose, and Deke becomes increasingly obsessed with finding him. And Jimmy begins to follow down the same path.

As for the killer, repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), with his stringy hair, pot belly, sallow face and sunken eyes, is the prime suspect. Leto looks like he simultaneously put on weight and starved himself for the role.

Filmmaker Hancock is a clean, classical filmmaker, not unlike Clint Eastwood, with whom he kicked off his career with his two superb screenplays, A Perfect World and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

As a director, he has been able to tell stories of ambition, both inspiring (The Rookie, The Blind Side) and slightly edgy (Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder).

However, as a movie about obsession rather than ambition, The Little Things feels a tad outside his wheelhouse.

His sturdy style is still here, but, in general, Hancock seems more comfortable sharing information for purposes of drama than withholding it for purposes of suspense.

It turns out that Hancock wrote the screenplay near the beginning of his career, back in the 1990s, and the film is still set during that time, suggesting that few changes have been made.

One unfortunate drawback is that there are no decent roles for women.

Natalie Morales (from Battle of the Sexes and the Netflix series Dead to Me) appears as another police detective who occasionally appears and helps advance the plot, Michael Hyatt plays a forensic pathologist who has a history with Deke, and Isabel Arraiza plays Jimmy's waiting-at-home wife, and that's about it.

Without an update, the script is perhaps a step back in the director's artistic evolution.

Indeed, The Little Things might have worked a bit better as a character study, without its "surprises." With all the cards laid on the table right at the start, the characters could come to terms with their demons.

Perhaps that version of the movie might also have beefed up the women's roles and toned down the slightly overcooked acting by Oscar-winners Malek and Leto.

At least Malek can be partly forgiven for mumbling his lines Brando-style, since he has been saddled with most of the story's exposition. He might have just been keeping himself amused.

Washington, however, is amazing, as usual. Deke carries his pain in every inch of his body, emotionally flogging himself by turning down an invitation to stay at an old friend's house and instead checking into the sleaziest, nastiest hotel in town, where ghosts of dead girls come to stare at him.

And Hancock makes terrific use of dark spaces here, whereas most of his other films were in brightness. Creepy windows and pools of flashlight and ultra-violet light definitely heighten the mood of mystery.

In short, the film is worth seeing, but it could have been better. Really, there's no sense in making a big thing over The Little Things.

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