‘The Little Things’ Might Have Been Great in 1993 (FILM REVIEW)

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Rating: C

It’s important to note that The Little Things was first conceived and written by John Lee Hancock, who also directed, back in 1993. And boy, does it feel like it. In a lot of ways, The Little Things is a throwback to the kind of dime-a-dozen thrillers that filled theaters in those post-Silence of the Lambs years.

And so, narratively, the film feels dated from the outset. 1993 was, after all, notably pre-David Fincher, who over the last two-and-a-half decades has rocked the neo-noir/thriller genre enough times to have completely changed the landscape of what it is expected by audiences. In this sense, The Little Things is, well, kinda quaint.

Which is curious because had The Little Things existed earlier than it does, it might be considered a foundational text for the neo-noir genre. One feels like if one could go back in time and make this movie in, say, 1988, that one might be considered a genius. But it is not 1988. Nor is it 1993. And so we have to judge The Little Things from our vantage point here in the wild year of 2021. This does not play well into the film’s favor.

Disappointing because Hancock is so clearly earnest in his attempt here. He would have to be to nurse this project for nearly three decades. And it’s not difficult to see why he so fell in love with it at its inception. In the 90s, this would have been a dark and brooding film that, more likely than not, would have unsettled audiences and kept then glued to their seats with its wild twists and morally grey opining. But we’ve seen so much of that since the film was first written, and the result is that The Little Things feels derivative of scripts it pre-dates.

From where we sit, however, the film’s characters exist as little more than cookie-cutter copies of paint by number caricatures. Take Denzel Washington, who here plays Detective With A Dark Past. That’s Deputy Deakins, or “Deke,” in the film but, as written, his name feels so less important than his archetype. So it is with all of The Little Things’ characters, such as Rami Malek’s Detective Young Hotshot or Jared Leto’s Creepy Suspect.

The plot of the film finds Detective With A Dark Past, who was forced out of the L.A. County homicide department five years earlier for Nebulous Reasons, returning to his old division on an errand from his new department up north. Though met with mixed reception from his former compatriots, Detective With A Dark Past soon finds himself embroiled in a case involving several gruesome murders being investigating by Detective Young Hotshot. Bearing a resemblance to Detective With A Dark Past’s Haunting Unsolved Mystery, the two form an uneasy alliance in order to locate the killer before his latest victim suffers the consequences.

Structurally, the film lends itself to concurrent narrative threads: The central mystery of whodunnit and what happened to Detective With A Dark Past five years ago. This lends to the film’s exploration of the moral grey areas between cop and killer, right and wrong, good and evil. Which, again, would probably have played a lot better in 90’s cinema than it does today. Today it just feels familiar and rote.

Which isn’t to say “bad,” necessarily. The film is confidently competent, and Hancock proves himself adept at staging and getting the appropriate performances from his cast. Washington, especially, delivers the film his all. That’s unsurprising, of course. Being Denzel Washington comes with certain perks, such as being effortlessly badass at pretty much anything you do. It’s an intensity Malek tries to match, and almost succeeds in accomplishing.

And then there’s Leto. Leto’s Creepy Suspect is something of a pastiche of every Creepy Suspect that we’ve ever seen in the neo-noir/thriller genre, and in the process of his character creation he very nearly ascends to a kind of camp godhood. He has to be the guy. I mean, just look at him. He’s so creepy. I can’t tell you why. He’s just so…weird. And creepy. At the very least, Leto looks like he’s having a blast. But then, he always looks like he’s having a blast. Being Jared Leto comes with certain perks, such as always having a great time without needing any specific talent to back it up.

By the end of the film, and following its laughable twist (which, it bears noting, might have been effective in 1993), we’re left with a stark reminder of the importance of striking when the iron is hot. Hancock perhaps deserves some credit for nursing this film through and out of development hell and delivering his passion project, but the past is so often better left in the past. What worked in former decades is trite in the present day, and while that’s not really the fault of The Little Things or anyone involved in its production, it’s worth considering that sometimes never actually is better than late.

The Little Things is now playing in theaters and on HBOMax.

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