What happens when you cross the line in the search for justice? What happens when the need for the truth leads you to obsession? These are just a few of the questions that director John Lee Hancock chooses to focus on in his burning neo-noir detective narrative The Little Things. And with an incredible cast with three Academy Award winners, including Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, he takes audiences into a dark corner of the human soul that rarely gets explored.
Clashes between Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) and L.A. Sheriff Department Sergeant Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Malek) occur during the investigation of a serial killer (Leto).
Director John Lee Hancock brings a singular focus to the narrative of The Little Things, a film which he both wrote and directed. And the result is a powerfully dark and intense neo-noir detective story that pulls audiences in and won’t let them go. Best described as a slow-burn crime story, Hancock places his attention on building out a true detective story, where the focus is on the investigation of the crime and the conflict that it causes its detectives. Mixing two distinct methodologies of two very different police officers keeps things interesting on screen and Hancock’s approach to the genre and story of his film leads to plenty of unexpected twists, and very interesting turns that you won’t see coming.
Having nurtured this story for over twenty years, having first conceived it in 1996, Hancock has really taken his time to get things right and the result shows up on screen. While quintessentially a serial killer, crime investigation story, The Little Things examines key themes of investigation, justice, intuition and obsession, and these central ideas keep this story fresh and interesting. While we’ve all seen the quintessential ‘serial killer/detective story’, The Little Things keeps you off guard thanks to its slow-burn pace and the mounting tension that grips it’s three central characters. For audiences who like a film that makes you think, Hancock really delivers something interesting and crafts a film that is a very clever watch.
Taking on one part of the acting triple threat in The Little Things is two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington as Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon. Deke is a complex, unorthodox and haunted man, who has a serious reputation and is possessed of an unwavering intensity and dark secret that haunts him to this day. As a gifted investigator, he can step into the mind of a killer enabling him to find ways into a case that others might miss. But this ‘gift’ marks him out as a pariah by his fellow officers, and he’s an unwanted presence in Los Angeles.
Deke gives Washington a complex and dark figure to portray, and Hancock takes audiences inside his broken mind and the waking hallucinations that he suffers from. It’s an intense portrayal on behalf of Washington and audiences journey to a very grim place through this character.
Standing beside Washington’s Deke is fellow Academy Award winner Rami Malek as LASD Det. Jim Baxter and this is a sharp turn for the actor. Where Malek has made a career for himself portraying oddballs and outliers, in The Little Things he’s fundamentally the straight man. As Baxter, Malek brings an unwavering intensity and focus to this hotshot young detective who has been handed the reigns of a big-time murder investigation and his burning intensity to find his killer casts a big shadow across his life and career.
In The Little Things, we see a different side to Malek, and he excels as this very stoic and by the book character. Where Deke is one to cut corners, Baxter is a by-the-book kind of character and this leads to some great interaction and character conflict. Malek really holds the attention of the screen and shares a unique chemistry with Washington and audiences will get a kick out of seeing these two together up on the big screen.
Bringing max creep factor to The Little Things, and completing the film’s acting triple threat is Academy Award winner Jared Leto, and he’s incredibly scary in this one. As would-be serial killer Albert Sparma, Leto is offputting and brings to life a character that is sure to make your skin crawl as this almost vagabond-pervert creep. There’s definitely something off about Sparma, and he knows far more than he’s letting on about. Leto is known for bringing some serious madness to his method acting persona, and he changes himself up as this bloated, greasy-haired freak whose attention soon becomes fixated on Deke and Baxtor.
The Little Things embraces the neo-noir genre to its full advantage and one of Hancock’s most important collaborators in bringing this film to life is cinematographer John Schwartzman. Schwazrtman has worked across all genres and here in The Little Things he centres his camera on the use of dark and brooding shadows and his harsh lighting teases out the darkness that threatens to envelop our characters. This use of high contrast shadows is very reminiscent of classic film noir chiaroscuro lighting and firmly cement you in the film’s dark story. A consistent green colour palette of various tonal hues keeps the audience off guard and makes the images presented here very memorable.
As a detective story, The Little Things slow-burn narrative appealed to me and I enjoyed how Hancock, Washington, Malek and Leto toyed with their viewer’s emotions and understanding of the narrative. This is not your typical noir thriller, and it tries things and takes risks that make it interesting as a film to watch. So rarely do we get a Hollywood blockbuster that takes an established genre and really flips it on its head in regards to narrative process, but that’s exactly what The Little Things does, and noted fans of the noir genre will be pleased with the results they see here.
Dark, brooding and incredibly clever, The Little Things is a very intellectually stimulating watch and your mind will really tick with this one. Washington, Malek and Leto get to do something special here, and if you’re wanting to experience a different side of a long-established genre this one is a very interesting watch.
Image: Warner Brothers Pictures