New Releases: the little things (2021) - Reviewed


Obsession and guilt are what make detective stories interesting.  In a time where America is struggling to define the purpose of police in the context of institutionalized racism, a film about possibly corrupt police hunting a serial killer initially appears yawn inducing, perhaps even eye rolling.  However, beyond an unusually glacial character piece, made possible by a trifecta of powerful performances, John Lee Hancock's (The Blindside) the little things is an absolute clinic on the inability to let things go.  

Detectives, social workers, teachers, and healthcare professionals have all encountered darkness at some point in their careers.  There are mysteries that, no matter how hard the investigator tries, may never be solved and worse, the ramifications of the crime may never be resolved.  At first glance it may seem easy to dismiss this patient rumination on crime and duty as a SE7EN clone.  Upon further examination, this film shares more of its DNA with Sean Penn's masterwork The Pledge.  The story focuses on a disgraced former LA detective who teams with his youthful replacement to hunt a serial killer who may have been haunting the veteran for years.  The story is simple, with intent.  Hancock is more interested in the characters and world rather than action and the film is all the better for it.  

The human race has been mutually traumatized over the last year.   It's fitting that this film, written in 1993, would come to fruition just as the light begins to appear at the end of the COVID tunnel. At the center of the story is Denzel Washington's scarred and broken Deke.  His tragic, Shakespearean background is doled out throughout the film’s overlong running time, but it is his present that is of the most import.  His youthful counterpart is Det. Baxter, played with intellectual ferocity by Rami Malek.  Their dynamic is the core, two men at opposite ends of their careers who are brought together by the instinctual drive to make things right.  One of the best aspects is in how Deke's loneliness doesn't destroy him with vice, it defines him with purpose.  Ghosts haunt him at every turn, as he speaks to the dead begging for answers that will never come, while Malek’s Baxter tries to balance family and a sense of right in a world gone wrong.  This is the genius of Hancock's script, for anyone who's ever left something undone, this story is intoxicating, promising redemption and comeuppance while slowly encasing the viewer in an elaborate trap born from trauma, setback, and shame.  

These demons are personified in Jared Leto's Sparma, the quarry that the police are hunting.  In what is the performance of his career, Leto conjures dime store Manson, a millennial villain whose eccentricities and nonchalant malice adhere to the subconscious like gum under a theater chair.  He's soiled, aloof, and possibly the smartest opponent either of the heroes have faced, leading to an unorthodox cat and mouse game without speed, flash, or gunfights.  Hancock is almost too reserved, forcing the character flaws, illusions, and false flags to the fore, commanding the viewer to simply, endure, to experience.  The finale is a quiet, yet devastating affair in which everything and nothing are combined and destroyed, releasing the shared nightmares and dreams of the trio into the ether, a choice that will either rebuke or endear.  

Longtime collaborator John Schwartzman's cinematography is astounding.  While his trademark eye for close quarters mayhem is absent, it is the humane underpinnings of his work on Jurassic World that comes to mind.   This is a small, whisper of a story and when juxtaposed with a colossal tale such as World, it’s the marriage of the two that makes this work.  The world outside the city, outside the crime scenes and morgues is huge, limitless, and beautiful.  Within the confines of LA however, the sewage begins to seep from every tear in the pristine veneer, a biproduct of moral concession that consumes all of the characters, creating an inescapable purgatory in which nothing makes sense anymore beyond the personal code of the two crusaders, both of which whose compromises may ultimately undo them.  

Coming to theaters and HBO Max this Friday, the little things is an introspective crime thriller that is in no rush to win your affections.  It's an unusual approach to an exhausted genre that when it hits, it shakes the heavens and when it misses, it peels paint.  The end result is a complex, adult oriented, inverted chamber piece in which the prison is the mind's eye, full of bad memories and the voices of the dead.  A place that once entered, cannot be escaped, despite best intentions and the understanding of who the "good guys" are.  

--Kyle Jonathan