The Little Things tries to be No Country For Old Men.
And that is not a good thing.
Set in the 1990's, the movie is about Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington), a former LAPD homicide detective who, for reasons that are revealed throughout the movie, is now a lowly Sheriff's deputy far away from the big city. Circumstances force him back to town where he happens to run into his old coworkers and the new hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) who are running an investigation into a serial killer. Despite his best intentions not to be involved, Deke finds himself drawn into the case and starts finding clues that the others are missing. This eventually leads him to Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a creepy repairman who may or may not have something to do with the murders.
It should be said that this movie has some great performances. It is almost a given that Washington is going to be amazing he does not disappoint. He put on the pounds to make himself look like the middle-aged man that his character is. There is lethargy and weariness in his body, with his eyes slightly glazed with age. He is constantly haunted by his own mistakes, but you can see the desire for just and to prove himself again keep pushing through. Leto is perfectly creepy as Sparma. He plays the character with just the right amount of detachment so that you really cannot tell if he is a psychotic killer or a con-man who like the attention. It's like he is intentionally making himself look suspicious and you cannot help but feel like that is the point. Malek is decent as Baxter, and he is able to keep up with Washington and Leto, but he never really breaks through.
Director John Lee Hancock does a great job of building tension and setting the mood. The opening scene is fantastic and gripped me right away. A young woman is driving down a dark desert highway singing along to the B-52s, when a pair of headlights rides up on her tail. You see how quickly things go from fun and carefree to uncomfortable, to concerning, and then to terrifying. Throughout the film, he gives the film the right noir feel for the script that he wrote.
Everything here is set for a truly enjoyable murder mystery. But it drops the ball.
This is one of those films that I cannot accurately review without going into the ending, so be warned:
SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.
The Little Things makes the mistake that I am noticing more and more in modern stories: it ignores the plot to focus on theme.
Don't get me wrong, theme is absolutely important as the transcendent element of the story. But you need a good plot in order for the theme to take hold. If the story does not grab you, the theme will not take root.
The plot of this movie is that it is a murder mystery. You are following the detectives in order to follow the clues in order to catch the killer. Along the way, we are introduced to the themes of justice, guilt, and redemption. All of this is good and all of this works.
But then the movie decides to pull a No Country for Old Men. That movie had a tight and tense plot until the third act when the Cohen brothers decided that they were no longer intersted in the plot and instead wanted to focus on the theme. The main through-line we had been following is completely abandoned (although to be fair, I think this is also the case in the novel from which it is adapted).
The Little Things does the same thing in the last 10-15 minutes of the movie. Once a decision has been made by one of the main characters, the story no longer tries to answer the question of who the killer is. Instead, the movie focuses completely on the moral implications of the character's choice and how it affects the themes of justice, guilt, and redemption.
To be clear, the issue isn't that we never get a clear answer as to who the killer is. Ambiguity itself is not the problem. The problem is that the movie no longer cares who the killer is. The main narrative engine comes to a complete stop and the movie expects us to jump the tracks and get on a new train for the last leg of the journey.
I'm sorry, but that is completely unsatisfying. When you write a story with a set up like this, you take on a certain amount of narrative debt that you must repay somehow to the audience by the end. Hancock refuses to do so and as a result, you feel cheated.
I read a review that argued critics misunderstood Hancock's themes. I disagree. I get his themes. I like his themes. He just short-changed me on the plot.
As a result, The Little Things is a mix of very talented people making an ultimately unsatisfying film.