The Little Things is a crime thriller written, co-produced and directed by John Lee Hancock. Hancock’s most notable effort is 2009’s The Blind Side, which netted Sandra Bullock her lone Oscar win. The first draft of Things was written nearly 20 years ago, back when Steven Spielberg was attached to direct. Over the years, Things has courted many well-known names to direct, like Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and even Danny DeVito. Hancock, who at the time didn’t feel he was ready to tackle such a dark story, finally decided to take a shot at directing his own script. With a stellar cast that includes Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, The Little Things comes in during an extended quiet time for film releases, but with some expectations.
Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Kern County deputy sheriff who aids Los Angeles detective Jim Baxter (Malek) in catching a serial killer. An appliance repairman, Albert Sparma (Leto), becomes the prime suspect, but Deke and Jim have difficulty finding sufficient evidence. Albert certainly fits the profile of a serial killer, plus he’s simply strange and creepy. Albert doesn’t help matters when he taunts the police once they investigate him more closely.
Things is a 90s throwback in regards to its social climate, but it's also a throwback to classic neo-noir murder mysteries. The fact Hancock wrote the first draft in 1993 lines up with the film’s setting (90s Los Angeles) and social atmosphere. Things gives off obvious Se7en vibes, David Fincher’s masterful 1995 film with a twist ending so sadistic and genius it’s still talked about today. Things, though, isn’t at Se7en’s level – it asks viewers to suspend belief too much, while it feels more like a studio film than a bold art piece. That’s not to say Hancock doesn’t take some risks, but Things has a familiar ring, which is both good and bad.
Things initially alludes to a one-on-one battle between Washington and Leto. Deke took vacation time to stay in L.A. and investigate these recent murders because a new murder he examined with Jim is similar to an old serial murder case Deke couldn’t solve when he was an L.A. detective. Hancock sets things up when Deke begins tailing Albert – the actors share two scenes which ratchets up the tension while also providing impressive acting. Both actors are fantastic as they apply their different acting styles with great effect (Washington typically inhabits his character once the cameras roll; Leto is a Method actor who stays in character during a film production’s duration). But ultimately, the mano y mano showdown fails to materialize because Hancock went in a different direction and seemingly he didn’t want to exclude Malek.
Not to be outdone – Malek is the youngest actor of the three, but he’s excellent, too (his work on 208’s Bohemian Rhapsody and on the television series Mr. Robot did well to prepare Malek for this role). Hancock posits Jim as having a lot in common with Deke, although on the surface the two couldn’t be more different. Malek and Washington’s scenes together support that notion while slyly setting up the third act – its conclusion an unexpected one (at first glance).
There is a lot to like with The Little Things – it’s perfectly cast; it’s impeccably acted; and its script is full of tension and drama. But there are issues with its ending – not only is it semi-unexpected, but Hancock opts for two twists. The first twist explains one character’s mindset and moves to justify his motives and actions, while the second twist leaves Things’ 127-minute running time with a mysterious conclusion that is unsatisfying enough to be a dealbreaker.
If nothing else, Things is the perfect acting masterclass. Hancock allows ample opportunities for Washington, Malek and Leto to play to their strengths without chewing up scenery. They are the glue that holds the film’s fragile ending together. The Little Things could’ve been great, the best it could muster is good.
The Little Things was released on January 29, 2021 and is available in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max for 31 days.
3.5 stars out of 5