It’s been a while since I’ve been so utterly enthralled by a thriller. “The Little Things,” directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), begins with fear and ends with a lie. Set in Los Angeles, 1990, the film is led by three Academy Award winners: Denzel Washington (“Fences”) and Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) star as Joe Deacon and Jim Baxter respectively, alongside Jared Leto (“Suicide Squad”) as lead suspect Albert Sparma.
Baxter is a young, hot-shot homicide detective for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department with a troubling string of unsolved murders. Washington gives a spectacular, seething performance as Deacon, a former detective with the LASD. Deacon is back in town on an errand for his new department in neighboring Kern County when he finds himself drawn dangerously into Baxter’s case. Reviving the obsession that led to Deacon’s relocation, his involvement drags Baxter into the same psychological spiral.
Perhaps in accordance with the film’s title, Hancock pays remarkable attention to detail. All of the evidence for the crime is there for the viewer to process, but only if they pay attention. Cinematically, the beautiful L.A. lights and long shots of cars in motion lend the film a certain West Coast “Taxi Driver” aesthetic.
Composed by Thomas Newman (“1917”), the original score is marvelous. Unctuous bass tones contrast with incising synth. The self-consciousness of Newman’s composition is the foundation for much of the psychological tension ratcheted to a clobbering crescendo at the film’s finale. Without this sonic landscape, Washington and Malek’s dexterous embodiment of character would be little more than a neo-noir masterclass.
Though the noir quality ironically lends the film a refreshing originality, the film feels familiar. There are many similarities to “Se7en,” with Hancock borrowing stylistic and narrative elements from the David Fincher classic. But while “Se7en” excels in its cohesion and creativity, “The Little Things” lacks that mastermind element, both in the film’s prime suspect and in its direction. The three leading men each bring their own fire to their roles, though the individual flames do not consistently merge into an inferno. To put it succinctly, “The Little Things” makes up for a lack of truly explosive chemistry with thrilling vignettes and intense cinematography.
In another nod to “Se7en,” religion plays an important role in the film, through dialogue and (admittedly blatant) symbolism. Deacon and Baxter speak about God and angels in somewhat trite musings about crime and senseless death. It seems that, rather than a source of salvation or sanctuary, Deacon regards religion as a reminder of his past failure and wrongdoing.
The film’s richest and most thrilling scene takes place in the St. Agnes hotel, a flophouse where Deacon stays as he is drawn back into the case that nearly killed him. With undoubtedly intentional irony (Agnes is the patron saint of chastity), the hotel’s name in neon casts a putrescent, boric green over the sex workers loitering outside. In Deacon’s room, the same green light floods in through a window, the ex-detective’s guilty hallucinations awash in a sinister and judging glow.
“The Little Things” finds success in the details. Light and color, underlaid by soundscape, elevate the film’s laconic moments to grand heights. The film falls shorter with regard to plot, especially compared to “Se7en” and “Taxi Driver.” For example, the opening sequence is of little narrative importance, except for those who stream the film and are able to scrub back to the beginning for exonerating (or condemning, I won’t spoil) details. While it lacks storytelling resonance and may not become a classic, “The Little Things” is well-acted, magnificently scored and achieves a visual splendor that makes the film highly watchable.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.