The Little Things (2021)
★★ / ★★★★
John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” gives an initial impression that it is going to be a certain type of crime picture: walk the grisly scene, gather evidence, interview witnesses, visit the lab, pursue suspects, capture the bad guy. Somewhere in between various complexities arise. Well, the writer-director has something else in mind: To take a look at those taking part in the investigation, officially or unofficially, and explore what it is that drives them. Here is a story about two men of the law whose identities are defined by their line of work.
Both wish to solve the same crime. Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is in charge of a case in Los Angeles involving four dead women—plenty of documented evidence but not a single suspect. He is young, considered by his more experienced peers to be a good cop, professional, by-the-book, very promising. The other is Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) who lives in Bakersfield. He looks tired, bored of his work but does what he can, and lives in isolation. Even the dog he cares for doesn’t come home for weeks at a time. No commitments.
The two men meet when the latter is asked to return to L.A. and pick up evidence from the County Sheriff’s Department, his former place of work. From the looks of it, it seems Deacon misses working in homicide. But his reason for sticking around proves to be far deeper than nostalgia. He suspects that an old, unresolved case is directly related to current serial murders.
During the picture’s extended expository sequences, we are offered nothing new. Even the formula of a has-been cop crossing paths with a hotshot detective is not that exciting. But what is curious is that the movie wallows in the formula for so long that more thoughtful viewers will be forced to wonder why. Because the screenplay actively avoids hitting the familiar landmarks of a procedural, what is the movie actually about?
I think Hancock’s story is about men of the law so dedicated to their jobs that over time they end up losing pieces of their soul, regardless of whether they solve a crime or whether the right suspect ends up behind bars. It is an indictment of the current system we have in America, particularly the lack of emphasis when it comes to the mental health of people who put their lives on the line to try to make our society a little safer. It is a stressful profession, the pay isn’t great, and the ghosts live rent-free in your head. But putting the general message aside, is the movie successful? In this case, it is a tough call.
On the one hand, I appreciated that the material is sagacious enough to include the menial details of detective work. It involves going into establishments, asking questions, gathering lists, and the like. When there is a suspect, cops have to wait in their car for hours. Following a suspect’s vehicle can lead to a wild goose chase. Does he know he’s being followed?
On the other hand, these moments of ennui could have been injected with ample personality. For instance, just because Baxter and Deacon must wait inside their vehicle for hours does not mean that they shouldn’t interact in meaningful ways. Yes, tedium can be an aspect of the story. But it does not mean that viewers ought to feel the need to check out. And because this picture teeters on the verge, it creates polarity. This is not a movie that is meant to be entertaining in a traditional sense even though it can be entertaining in small ways.
“The Little Things” is for a select audience. I found value out of it because I tend to discover meaning in… well, the little things. However, those who wish to sit through car chases, shootouts, elaborate murders, rousing confessions, courtroom scenes, and the like should not bother checking in. For those who do, prepare to adapt to the slow rhythm of a dry crime-thriller.