The theatrical market continues to endure dire straights, with a seldom few titles keeping the business alive while the rest await better days ahead. All parties involved are suffering severe losses, leaving studios searching for creative avenues for revenue gains. That’s where Warner Brothers comes in, as the studio is boldly undertaking day-to-day theatrical and streaming releases via HBO Max for all 2021 titles. Their first star-studded offering The Little Things features three Oscar-winning stars facing off in an eerie cop drama. The film’s workman-like manner doesn’t push new boundaries, but writer/director John Lee Hancock capably delivers an intriguing yarn for audiences to unravel.
The Little Things follows Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), who joins forces with Sgt. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) to search for a serial killer terrorizing Los Angeles. As they track down the culprit, Baxter is unaware that the investigation is dredging up echoes of Deke’s past, uncovering disturbing secrets that could threaten more than his case.
Hancock’s script has been sitting on the backlist back-burner since the early 90’s (Steven Spielberg was attached to direct back in 1993). While that fact left me with some initial unease regarding the project, the lengthy gap turns out to be more of a benefit than a hindrance. For better and sometimes worse, The Little Things’ procedural presentation feels like a relic from a bygone era, one where movies could present a poised and adult-driven lean without conforming to showier tendencies. It also allows Hancock to craft an evolving narrative without spoon-feeding obvious answers.
Finally given the opportunity to eschew the Hollywood biopic formula (The Founder, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Blind Side were some of his last projects), Hancock delivers one of his most viscerally alluring efforts to date. He and Director of Photography John Schwartzman imbue an assured precision with every frame, trusting their imagery enough to avoid overly-theatrical tricks (can’t say I was bummed to see a mainstream thriller with no shaky cam). The rigid and often times cold presentation sets a dour atmosphere that permeates through every frame. Whether it’s shadows appearing in the backdrop or dimly-lit environments, the arresting style effectively enhances the obsession and paranoia driving the central characters.
The Little Things benefits greatly from it’s acclaimed cast. Denzel Washington could deliver performances with weighty gravitas in his sleep at this point, but the role of Deke presents the star with unique opportunities. His usually charismatic demeanor morphs into an emotionally vacant persona, as Washington slowly peels away at the character’s veneer to reveal a more enigmatic presence. Rami Malek’s smooth confidence makes a great sparring partner for Deke’s aloof personality, while Jared Leto’s oddball delivery feels tailor-made for the detective’s primary suspect.
There’s an air of prestige surrounding Hancock’s gloomy production, but his effort ultimately offers little from a substantive perspective. Characterization is largely left in the background in favor of commonplace cop jargon and obvious red herrings, as Hancock seemingly dances away from the material’s more meaty elements to provide straightforward entertainment. The skin-deep approach leaves the characters feeling like empty vessels while their obsessive tendencies are never observed with proper depth or emotionality. Considering the script’s 30 years of dormancy, I wish Hancock made the weightier dramatic elements more of a focus over familiar police proceedings.
The Little Things seemingly settles considering the acclaimed talent involved. That being said, its refreshingly old-school approach elicits a tense ride up until its meditative final frames.
The Little Things premiers in theaters and HBO Max on January 29th.
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