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The Little Things | Review

Devil Detail: Hancock Probes Processes in Neo-Noir Throwback

John Lee Hancock The Little Things ReviewIn a city of angels, there are an awful lot of devils dwelling, which is part of what makes Los Angeles a perennial hotbed for genre, from the annals of film noir through the fluctuating offerings of contemporary neo-noir. John Lee Hancock switches up his directorial trajectory with The Little Things a 1990 set throwback to cinematic serial killer fodder from a decade rife with them.

Revisiting a metropolis barely recovered from the terror of the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, the time and place are ripe for narrative possibility. While Hancock’s vintage vibes don’t quite capture the spirit of early 90s Los Angeles, neither does it convey a contemporary mood, which lends it a sort of pulpy ghost story feeling about cops and killers dredging through dreadful nightmares of the dead. The competing energies of three Academy Award winners also purloins the possibilities of the narrative’s energies, showcasing what sometimes feels like three male divas diving through their favorite tricks and tics.

In 1990 Los Angeles, a serial killer seems to be roaming the streets when corpses turn up all featuring similar bite marks. Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington), a deputy from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, happens to end up in Los Angeles during the transport of evidence involving another case when he becomes privy to the ongoing investigation from various colleagues. It seems Deke had been forced to leave the LASD for personal and professional reasons and his immediate interest aligns him with Jim Baxter (Remi Malek), currently leading the investigation and who happens to have replaced Deke in the department. Against the wishes from his chain of command, including Captain Ferris (Terry Kinney), Baxter brings Deke on board and together they home in on a strange drifter, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Although their evidence against him is circumstantial, the two cops, despite the differences in their preferred approaches, do what they can to prove their hunch on Sparma in their final hours before the FBI takes over the investigation. But their actions soon create a situation which spins out of control.

Entertaining, but not always for the right reasons, The Little Things rides high on the ambiguous potential of Hancock’s narrative but stumbles so frequently through illogical catalysts it’s difficult to enjoy the menacing note it eventually leads us to. The scant details on Deke’s troubled professional past are released via frequent, though brief, flashbacks, and it’s not long before his desires align with his actions. Rami Malek’s ‘holy roller’ backslides into circuitous and illegal machinations to obtain physical evidence on their prime suspect in 48 hours before the FBI takes over, even though his integrity never really rears its head. And then, there’s not enough friction of Deke’s taking vacation days to stay in Los Angeles, neither from Kern County nor the ex-colleagues who know exactly what he’s up to. Shades of countless films, from Seven to Copycat and Training Day may cross one’s mind, but Hancock never sails into the anxious energy all those films conjure successfully. Deke and Jim are not only introduced as diametrically opposed, but the younger man is also the replacement for the other, and yet, another ball is dropped in navigating such energies. Washington and Malek instead appear as wary consorts, both delving into their own self-designed, complexly manicured facial performances. Malek’s uniqueness suggests a villainous physiognomy, like an odd mixture of Peter Lorre, Klaus Kinski and Van Heflin, and the resistance of expected tropes concerning his presence is interesting.

But then enter Jared Leto an hour into everything (John Schwartzman’s initial shot of Albert Sparma is chilling, a greasy Manson-styled, cuckoo-eyed weirdo), but then we must contend with all the mannered methods Leto waxes profoundly about, like a pronounced gait, fake nose and teeth, dark contacts, etc. (not to mention what looks like a pillow to suggest a beer gut). In short, he’s distracting, and the more time spent with Sparma, the more The Little Things loses steam. At the zenith of the script’s sins is the sole meeting of these three minds in an interrogation room, in which Deke loses his cool, resulting in an oddly blocked threat of violence. One looks for escape in some interesting character work on the periphery, particularly the likes of Judith Scott in her one scene as Deke’s ex-wife. The film’s real pleasure arrives in Michael Hyatt (the memorable detective from Nightcrawler, 2014) as the medical examiner who clearly has a crush on Deke, and who shares the heavy weight of a secret. Their shared love of 60s pop music underscores some of the film’s moodier moments as a variety of notable tracks play during Deke’s stakeouts, and feels like another interesting element which wasn’t correctly folded into the recipe.

Hancock, who began as a screenwriter, and penned two of Clint Eastwood’s more interesting 90s titles (A Perfect World; Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), has built a pronounced career on based-on-a-true-story melodramas which whitewash reality for mainstream consumption, never more egregiously than in films like The Blind Side (2009) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013). If The Founder (2016) stands as his most successful approximation to date (again, dealing with white heterosexual characters whose real issues are greed and adultery means less erasure of the truth), The Little Things is an intriguing departure from his usual interest but it lacks the grit and the grime, the fear and the terror which graces all classic genre movies, where we’re left to ponder the troubling notion of how the cops and killers are more alike than they are different.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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