Muddled material elevated by a great cast.
When Deputy Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent back to his old Los Angeles stomping grounds to collect processed evidence for a case, he encounters Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), an up-and-comer having made a name for himself stepping into the shoes vacated by Deke himself. When Baxter’s current case begins to ring true of a case Deke worked five years earlier, old ghosts are stirred up, compelling Deke to lend a hand. Unfortunately, their prime suspect Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) is a true-crime buff who enjoys playing with law enforcement and poking the proverbial bear. As case-building opportunities slip away one by one amid rising tensions, the story steps back from a mere who-done-it and into the mindset of getting the job done.
Any film pooling the Academy-Award-winning talents of Washington, Malek, and Leto already has a minimum standard to meet. All three actors can hold complete conversations just making slight changes to their facial expressions… and what a movie that would make! This 1990s period piece free of mobile phones and other new technologies forces characters to make the most of their time period in a game of catch-me-if-you-can, even to the point of matching some of the film framing. What the success of this film hinges upon is, can a slow-burn story about catching a killer and dealing with the aftermath give compelling attention to both elements?
The Little Things feels both stretched at just over two hours and yet still incomplete, as if this were the pitch for a limited series that ended up becoming a movie when passed over. Like awards-season films leaving endings too ambiguous for the time invested by the average moviegoer, it doesn’t trust the audience to make a firm commitment on any particular conclusion; it can even be argued the lack of satisfaction on this point is entirely intentional. Fortunately, the introduction of Leto pitted against Washington and Malek still provides a relatable enough scenario for viewers to connect with while also offering rewards enough to cross the finish line.
There are two films being mashed together here. One is a standard police procedural where a cold case gets reopened with new evidence or because paused crimes began being committed again; is it a copycat, the same killer, or something else entirely? The second is exploring the dangers of obsession and the tricks to stay sane when you look at dead bodies for a living. One telling scene has a victim appear like an apparition before others join in, like Jacob Marley reaching out from beyond the grave. Unlike A Christmas Carol, this isn’t in a threatening way so much as adding the weight of failed responsibilities, chains carried in life but in this case fully felt before the grave. It can be argued this is the more compelling story to be told, but Leto’s challenge-accepted presence skews the film away from that.
There are plenty of great moments throughout, the heaviest being wordless. Because there were so few characters (read: suspects), a more exacting conclusion would have been more satisfying… or even a denouement that better resolved some of the aforementioned haunts already being suffered. This was done much better in Stir of Echoes, but that film leaned on supernatural elements rather than the mind’s eye. All told, it would have been nice to see this explored in a mini-series with more characters to allow important roles more than a moment or two onscreen, but the intended effect was achieved. As Marley’s ghost said to Scrooge, “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”
The Little Things is rated R for violent/disturbing images, language, full nudity, and knowing all the warning signs.
Three skull recommendation out of four