THE LITTLE THINGS, or to be precise, “the little things” is a well-thought-out film, and if putting a film together with the pre-fab precision of a Lego® sculpture were all it took to make a great flick, such it would be. Alas, the overweening self-conscious sense of profundity fails to convince even the most willing observer to play along. At least not after the first 15 minutes, when even the derivative elements peter out into endless entropy.
Denzel Washington is, as always, Denzel Washington, which is not a bad thing considering his gift for both emotional immediacy and whip-snap intensity whose unpredictability never fails to engage. His character’s name is Joe “Deke” Deacon and he’s an ex-Los Angeles detective currently living a much quieter life as a deputy sheriff in Kern County. He finds himself back in his old haunts, though, when there’s no one else available to retrieve some crucial evidence from the LAPD. Once there, and thanks thanks to running afoul of department bureaucracy, he gets swept up in a murder case that reminds him of the one case from his LAPD time that he just can’t let go.
He also runs afoul of Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a tightly wound crusader who does not take it well when Deke’s truck blocks his sedan in the police parking lot. There are reasons that Jim is stressed. He’s the public face of the investigation into the murders of four prostitutes in the last two months, and the pressure from above is overwhelming. He’s also the department golden boy, the one who can’t afford to fail. Of course, they take an instant dislike to each other, Deke being a laid-back guy, and Jim having the arrogance of ambition that renders him diffident in his interactions with others. That his ambition is fueled by a genuine, almost naïve thirst for justice in the world doesn’t make him any more likeable. The story, however, demands that they bond, and so they do, over a new murder. When Deke, who comes along for the ride when the call comes in, discovers an obscure clue, Jim is impressed. When Deke notices a similarity to that old case that haunts him, he wants in on the investigation.
Filmed with the cool dispassion of a neo-noir, perfectly reflecting its overall mood of hinky moral compasses and guilty secrets, it does have clever visual touches. A rear-view mirror showing Deke’s past, or the past blending into the present seamlessly, thereby reinforcing the mantra Deke repeats to himself about the presence of the past as the visions of those previous murders stare at him wordlessly. For all the slickness of the direction, the story is anything but subtle in making its underlying points. Plot points have a similar failing. The nubile young woman assuring her jogging buddy that she can make the last three blocks home on her own in the dark Los Angeles streets naturally shows up on a missing flier the next day, and the lone young woman who begins the film by driving a deserted highway at night only to find herself being terrorized by another driver on the road is the classic blonde victim of countless slasher films.
The chemistry between the two leads that would carry a flawed film never gels. Malek is as deliberately paced in speech, motion, and method as the film itself, which works for the former better than it does for the latter. Malek is almost daring us to find a reason to like this guy, a bold choice but one he can’t afford here. Worse, the one thing a suspense film should never do is drag, and this one does. Not even the cat-and-mouse game played by the main suspect (Jared Leto) is less interesting than the limp Leto essays along with the greasy hair and paunch. The mystery of why Deke left is played on parallel track to the mystery of the dead girls, and both scatter far to few clues to keep the momentum going, despite excellent supporting performances that would otherwise help carry the weight by Michael Hyatt as a coroner with mixed feelings about Deke, and Chris Bauer as Deke’s garrulous quondam partner who has little use for college-educated upstarts like Jim.
THE LITTLE THINGS is so much less than the sum of its considerable parts. A noble kind of failure, rife with lofty goals that have Deke and Jim pondering the existence of a higher deity after examining a corpse freshly pulled from the water. But it’s an iffy follow-through. It’s never quite explained why it’s set in 1990, for example. In keeping with the film’s title, and premise, the little things are given great consideration, though, and if nothing else, there is something puckish about Deke’s obsession with a radio station that only plays love songs from the 1950s and 60s, so that when he and Jim are giving chase to a suspect, Little Peggy March can be heard crooning “I Will Follow Him”. It’s the little things, after all.