John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” begins at night, where a motorist on a road trip is singing along to the radio and finds herself tailed by a car that dangerously speeds next to her.
A pursuit leads to a foot chase, with the sequence feeling less like a slasher movie cliché and more akin to the chair-clutching horror of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.”
After the scary opening scene, “The Little Things” reveals itself to be patient, character-driven and truly odd. This is the kind of mystery that doesn’t reward the attentiveness we’re giving it.
Denzel Washington stars as Joe Deacon, a troubled police officer who, along with Jim, a hotshot new cop (Rami Malek), takes on a murder case that might be the work of a serial killer. Deacon’s boss (the wonderful character actor Terry Kinney) wants him to stay away from the investigation, but Jim takes notice of Joe’s gift of observation and partners with him on the hunt.
The film is set in 1990, which is evident from the subtle costume and auto choices but mostly because there’s use of pay phones and pagers and not a cell phone in sight.
Washington is always a pleasure to watch, even here, where he’s typically good but not giving one of his best performances. The problem isn’t his acting (I don’t think he’s capable of giving a bad performance, not even in a bad movie) but the character has limited potential. His character’s special skills at tracking criminals aren’t fully developed. There’s an especially weird bit where he envisions the female victims of the killer hanging out around his bed at night.
This is Washington’s return to this genre for the first time since “The Bone Collector.” I’m happy to report that its better than the other serial killer thrillers he’s starred in, like “Ricochet” and “Fallen.”
When an actor of his caliber makes a pulpy film like this, you hope its superior junk food, like “Déjà vu” or “Out of Time.” Instead, we get a prestigious crime procedural that displays a craftsmanship far loftier than that of a typical crime TV series but a story that doesn’t go anywhere.
Another major problem is Malek, who gives a surprisingly wooden performance. He may have given a definitive, Oscar-winning portrait of Freddie Mercury but here, he makes his dialog sound unnatural and stilted. I can’t tell if he’s going for a deliberately weird, Christopher Walken element to his line readings or if Malek just simply isn’t good in this.
The film takes its time before Jared Leto finally puts in an appearance and it’s worth the wait.
His idiosyncratic touches makes his strange character bewitching. Playing a suspect in the case, Leto makes the most of his big interrogation scene and is the liveliest character here by far.
“The Little Things” waits far too long to tell us exactly what awful thing happened to Deacon that made him have to come back to work after a hiatus. Because the payoff takes so long, the impact is muted.
Hancock previously helmed “The Founder,” an underrated bio on the origin of McDonald’s and featuring a great Michael Keaton performance.
He also made “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” two popular films I can’t stand. Here, at the helm of his undernourished screenplay, his aim to shape a cerebral thriller results in a stilted film.
Sometimes Hancock’s patter has a nice rhythm to it, but mostly I was aware that I was listening to dialog. I like how a sicko observes crime photos of a dead girl and nonchalantly offers his critique: “No Weegee.”
Out of Malek’s mouth, Hancock’s lines sound especially robotic. At one point, Malek utters, “You piss on my leg and call it rain.” Far more unfortunate is Washington declaring, and I’m not making this up, “Your dick is as hard as Chinese arithmetic.” I’d be curious to hear what Washington, Malek and Leto, all recent Oscar winners, made of the script.
Hancock also wrote the Clint Eastwood-directed masterpiece, “A Perfect World,” which makes me wonder if Eastwood’s touch would have better served this. There’s also bit of “Seven” and “The Vanishing,” though only a dash and not enough of what made those films great.
The outstanding components are John Schwartzman’s beautiful cinematography and Thomas Newman’s elegant, unusual score (at one point, he even uses a harp for effect). There are scenes in “The Little Things” I liked but this is the kind of movie that means to leave an impact but will likely be forgotten by Earth Day.
Still, considering that 2020 started off with “Dolittle,” this is at least a slight step up from the usual January fare.
“The Little Things” might have worked better as a novel, with the psychological angle better explored. Here, we wonder why a film so long and devoid of real thrills or major surprises drags its feet the whole way.
Like a groaner punchline to a joke with a great set-up, I walked away feeling duped.