The Little Things

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Jared Leto in The Little Things.
Jared Leto in The Little Things.
Photo: Warner Bros

MOVIE:

The Little Things

WHERE TO WATCH:

Now showing in cinemas

OUR RATING

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Deputy Sheriff, Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington), is sent by his CO to his old precinct in Los Angeles for a routine evidence-gathering operation but, despite a weary reception by his old captain, he is quickly drawn to a case that bears a remarkable similarity to the one that all but ruined his life. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the precinct's new star detective and lead on the case, is intrigued by the legendary visiting cop and, ignoring his own uncertainty and the advice of his superiors, enlists Deke to help him try to solve the case – but will they manage to do so before Baxter is drawn into Deke's dark past.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

When I first saw that Denzel Washington was taking the lead in what looked to be just another generic thriller, I'm pretty sure I audibly sighed. Denzel is, hands down, one of the best actors on the planet and a screen presence with almost no equal, but he has, throughout his career, been drawn to action movies and thrillers that virtually never prove themselves worthy of him. I love genre cinema, but – a few tasty delights like Fallen, aside – Denzel has too often alternated his more serious roles with the blandest sort of generic crime thrillers and action flicks.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that, for all of its notable flaws, The Little Things is a much more interesting and absorbing film than it appears on paper. Though, ironically, it is precisely those flaws that makes it so much more intriguing than other films of its ilk.

For the earlier parts of the film, things proceed in much the way you expect them to. It's a very straightforward serial killer movie with Denzel playing the sort of role that he could by now play in his sleep. It's not bad, but it's almost instantly forgettable. A past-his-prime super detective crosses paths with an arrogant young upstart but soon finds himself working with that arrogant young upstart to crack a particularly difficult and grizzly case while learning that they're actually pretty similar. This is not the stuff of inventive, challenging or even particularly interesting cinema.

There's some fun to be had in the endearingly ludicrous cop-movie dialogue, and Malek and Washington are an unlikely but unsurprisingly effective pairing that give some weight to what is otherwise slightly pulpy but a largely bland serial killer movie. Though actually, the more it digs down into its pulpier and more cliché elements, the more fun it is.

Bubbling under the surface, though, was an entirely different film, and as the story progresses, that other film slowly starts to take over. This other film isn't really about the hunt for a serial killer. It's a serious character-drama about law enforcers whose obsessive need to catch the bad guy threatens to drag them and those around them into a spiral of self-destruction. Far from being a story of bad cops, it's a story of good cops whose very goodness might prove to be their undoing – or maybe not.

It's right there from the moment that we first meet Deke, a lonely cop clearly haunted by his past, and it becomes even clearer when Deke teams up with Baxter, the arrogant, hotshot young police officer who reminds Deke of his own younger self. It is only once Jared Leto enters the fray late in the second act, though, that it slowly starts to dawn on you that The Little Things is not the film you thought you were watching.

There are, I suppose, twists in the plot but where the film really pulls the rug from underneath you is how writer/director John Lee Hancock (yes, that's really his name!) turns the film's biggest flaws – a clashing tonal dissonance being chief among them - into something of a virtue.

It doesn't change the fact that these tonal clashes are genuinely jarring for most of the film or that, at 128-minutes in length, it takes an awful long time to deliver its weird mix of pulpy thrills, self-consciously generic dialogue, grizzly crime scenes, and introverted character-drama to overall confusing effect. But whether you hate or love the film at the end, it's hard not to admire Hancock for turning out a genre film that is nowhere near as generic as it first looks.

And that, oddly enough, applies to Leto's performance as well. When Leto first shows up, it looks like he's doing just another weird, overly mannered and quite annoying Jared Leto performance. The more time we spend with him, however, the more it becomes clear that this scatter-shot performance is actually quite purposeful and, as it turns out, the best thing he's done in years – but, for the sake of not revealing any actual spoilers, I do have to leave it at that.

What I can say is, though The Little Things may well end up disappointing fans of both Denzel Washington's thrillers and his more serious dramas by being both and neither at the same time, it is, at worst, an honourable failure and, at best, a subversive and smart deconstruction of what we usually expect of serial killer movies. I'm still not sure which it is, myself, but that alone is almost enough to recommend it.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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