the little things- A By the Book Mystery

Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

Stop me if you’re heard this one. There’s a serial killer preying on the women of Los Angeles. There’s a young, ambitious detective whose star is on the rise in the department in pursuit. There’s an older burnt out cop out to solve the case that’s been haunting him his whole career.  If you’re saying “I think I’ve seen this movie,” it’s probably because you have in one form or another.  

The story is simple. It’s 1990, and Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a former hot shot detective who got burnt out on the job and is now working up north as a sheriff’s deputy. He’s pulled back to LA by a murder case currently assigned to Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) who is the current up and coming detective in the department. Deacon discovers Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) as a suspect who could be the killer. They have 48 hours  to solve the case before the FBI takes over the investigation. That’s the tired setup we’ve seen a million times on nearly every cop movie and TV show. 

the little things is very reminiscent of films from the 90s like Silence of the Lambs and Seven. One scene in which a woman drives down the highway singing along to the radio looks very similar to the scene in which Catherine Martin sings along to Tom Petty just before she encounters Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. In fact you would not be surprised to learn that the script was written in the 90s by John Lee Hancock who also directs. 

All this is not to say the little things is a bad movie. It’s well directed and has some great looking cinematography and production design. Even the score is strong, but what really elevates this material are the performances from Washington, Malek, and Leto.  

Denzel Washington’s subtle, naturalistic performance as Deacon is mesmerizing as a world weary cop who stayed in the job too long. Every line is weighted with subtext, and even his smile has a sadness to it.  Deacon is the best written character of the piece, but all the usual tropes are there. He’s burnt out, divorced, obsessed with the case he never solved, but Washington somehow makes it all work. 

Leto takes creepy to the next level as Sparma. Just looking at him makes you want to take a shower. It’s an incredibly understated portrayal for Leto that’s truly remarkable. His scenes with Washington and Malek are some of the best in the film. 

Malek doesn’t get as much to do as Baxter unfortunately, but he does well with what he’s given. He has real chemistry with Washington which makes their scenes entertaining.  Malek brings his own idiosyncratic style to the role, and it’s refreshing to see.

the little things is well cast all the way around with strong supporting roles. Veteran actors like Chris Bauer (The Wire, True Detective) and Michael Hyatt (Nightcrawler, Ray Donavan) lend some gravitas to the film and give it an air of authenticity. 

The mystery plot is a bit paint-by-numbers, but the visuals and the performances are captivating enough to keep us watching. If this movie was released in the 90s when it was written, it probably would have garnered some awards. It still might yet, but in the streaming era one can’t help but compare it to some of the amazing television of the day, shows like True Detective  which allows these kinds of stories to breathe over multiple episodes with their own amazing visuals and performances. 

the little things is currently in theaters (where available) and streaming on HBO/MAX. It won the box office on its opening weekend. It’s certainly box office worthy, but since theaters in my area are closed, I was happy to watch it at home where it’s well suited. It’s a good curl-up-on-the- couch movie and definitely worth the watch if you’re a Denzel fan. 

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