The Little Things
A notable effort to subvert expectations is lost in a half-baked plot
Police procedurals and detective stories have taken on a new light given the mainstream conversation regarding the systemic abuse of power in police forces in the United States and other countries. Thus any film dealing with a classic murder mystery must be wary of how it portrays its police characters and the themes and actions running across it. One of HBO Max’s newest home premieres in its controversial film distribution strategy is John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things (2021).
The Little Things is set in October 1990 in southern California. A veteran cop named Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) with a dark past is drawn back to Los Angeles where he is swallowed up by a new string of murders of young women. He’ll team up with the young prodigy detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) in order to help calm his conscience regarding his mysterious past.
John Lee Hancock has been a director who is adept at stepping away from the limelight of his film style in order to let the plot do all the talking. This is a kind of approach to directing that is admirable in its humility and service to storytelling. It also helps him navigate different genres with ease, from the family friendly The Rookie (2002), to the sports drama The Blind Side (2009), the business biopic The Founder (2016), and now a mystery thriller. Lee Hancock also wrote the screenplay for The Little Things and it proves to have good intentions in trying to play with overwrought genre, subverting expectations, and commenting on how we define certain character tropes as heroic or villainous. The intent and purpose for the film’s existence seems to be heavily concentrated in the final fifteen minutes, where a twist helps make a powerful commentary on the police and brings a frustrating realism to the mystery genre’s typically comforting solutions.
However, The Little Things’ surrounding narrative does Lee Hancock no favors. Lee Hancock is given an embarrassment of riches with his cast, which not only includes Washington and Malek, but Jared Leto as the lead suspect as well. All the actors bring forth their A-game, with Washington once again astounding me at how deeply he dives in each role he takes, no matter how trivial or generic they might seem. Leto is capable in bringing forth a creepiness in which he seems to be continuous type-cast in, while Malek is competently convincing as the strict and exigent young Jim. However, all fine actors are stuck playing largely stereotypes of the mystery genre. While I understand that Lee Hancock is trying to bring a commentary to the genre by placing his characters in certain cliché situations, it makes a large portion of the film seem rather unoriginal and stale.
As with many mysteries we are slowly introduced to little details (no pun intended) and side characters who seem to be suspicious, not revealing their true selves entirely. This is a tactic used by many mystery writers in creating misdirection, or else building up a series of suspects. However, The Little Things is crafted in a manner that these detours seem to make the core of the narrative. This makes the entire film, save the finale, seem like its pointlessly wandering, clueless as to what to do next. Especially given that the detectives never follow up on any of the supporting details, focusing solely on Leto’s character. This brings forth a feeling of frustration that might be effective in emulating how the real police work might be, but its artistic execution makes it less insightful and seem like filler scenes.
Many mystery writers can choose these “wandering” moments to build up their central detectives and characters. Helping bring stakes and depth to their plight, so that we root for them despite their investigative missteps. However, Lee Hancock gets so bogged down in trying to craft some clever and symbolic dialogue that his characters remain completely flat, with no insight as to who they are or what motivates them. The dialogue itself that Lee Hancock has chosen to focus on, trips over itself, bogging down scenes and even making conversations hard to follow.
The weak writing in the dialogue is paired with some bad narrative crafting. A mystery writer will usually want to be one or two steps ahead of the viewer or reader; Lee Hancock, however, seems to be forcing his characters into stupid and pointless decisions in order to bring out unearned tense moments. It is hard to root for the success of two detectives who are plane characters and seem to be making stupid decisions left and right. This makes the finale, which should have been gripping, feel only politely intriguing.
Then there’s the editing of the film, which for the likes of a studio film, with a rather experienced director behind, would seem to be competent. However, this might be The Little Things’ biggest flaw. The editing is so poorly constructed, viewers will be left confused as to the geography of many scenes, there will be split second character reactions left in a conversation, car chases are hard to follow, and the timeline even seems to be jumbled. This latter part was specifically noticeable. When switching from scene to scene, editors usually try and have some visual queue in order to hint at viewers that we are somewhere else. However, The Little Things will intercut between flashbacks and the film’s present in such a sloppy manner, some viewers will think the entire sequence was actually taking place in one continuous scene. Even the conversations seem to be taken from so many different angles, you have a hard time getting the geography of a specific location; in a mystery film getting a layout of the setting is incredibly important and crucial to viewers’ understanding of the plot and clues. Knowing that Lee Hancock is a director who is very focused on not letting the technical aspects of filmmaking or style get in the way of the story, I was surprised with how poorly The Little Things was patched up.
In the end, The Little Things is a mystery film that has a good intention at delivering a specific message with its finale, but whose enshrining narrative feels competent, but very generic. There is a noticeable and frustrating inadequacy with the editing, which further confuses and frustrates viewers with a risky premise that was already meant to test audiences’ expectations. Overall, The Little Things is not a bad film, but despite the best efforts of many in front and behind the camera, it isn’t a very memorable one.