The very accomplished Denzel Washington is and has been many superlative things throughout his illustrious career. His signature intensity and ardent commitment to character have filled trophy cases and made him a magnetic draw across five decades now. One thing you could never call him was boring. Sure, the same can’t be said about all of his movies, but he was never (and I mean never) part of the dullness. Well, after nearly 50 films, there’s a first time for everything and John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things, debuting on HBO Max, is the culprit.
It’s ironic to drop the word “culprit” with such assurance to reflect on a movie searching for a narrative one. Theirs inside is a mystery. Ours out here is not. Even worse, Hancock’s far-too-slight thriller drags two more Oscar winners down with Washington in the form of Bohemian Rhapsody frontman Rami Malek and The Dallas Buyer’s Club chameleon Jared Leto.
Written by his own hand, the Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side director applies his craft painting with blood and grime for a serial killer mystery set in 1990. Washington plays graying Kern County deputy Joe Deacon who’s been assigned to visit Los Angeles for an evidence exchange that may connect recent female murders in the city to a possible matching case from his tumbleweed trails. Every physical tick of apprehension shows Deacon is not happy about this pending visit.
No less than a minute into Deacon’s arrival at police headquarters, every reaction to his presence signals history and auspicious circumstances. It doesn’t take much of a streaming sleuth at home to hear and see the conflicting positive cordialities and negative awareness being given off by the beer belly battalion of blue brotherhood, an old coroner friend (Michael Hyatt), or the newbies after his time taken aback by his very name. Joe Deacon’s reputation precedes him. He’s got a known story The Little Things slows plays for all its worth to give Washington a potential spectrum between stalwart and unhinged.
The person hearing and asking the most about Joe Deacon is Detective Jimmy Baxter (Malek). The slick-suited and calculating PR face of the department invites the senior lawman to the crime scene of the newest victim where the wise bloodhound reveals his fortitudine style to fruitfully aid the investigation. The jarring familiarity of the crime scene findings and the foreboding and renewed urge to clear consciences and slay old demons convinces Deacon to stay on to assist Baxter. Their clued-in cravings begin to take interest in a local appliance repair worker (Leto), whose every appearance detail, thanks to the Method actor, screams guilty and too easy.
The Little Things, despite its R rating, is going for the aftermath ambiance route. The vile deeds are done and the cops are left with the gory details that crispen what the film’s title suggests. This low level of cinematic frequency puts emphasis on the nuances of investigation more than the catapult of any chase. That simplistic and plain tone creates more of a chiller than a thriller. Nothing announces that flaccid fact more than softie composer Thomas Newman’s fluttery and choral score that feels more like lotion on the skin than goosebumps.
This chiller vibe of The Little Things tries to create several performance stumps for the three headlining stars to punctuate doom-and-gloom portent. Deacon likes to say “it’s never over.” Conversations and curiosities measure everything from lifelong responsibilities to man and God in all the violence. Characters warn of unshakeable sights they’ve seen across cases and victims. Either desensitization or vigilance has made them used to the ugliness, but not before waxing speeches circle back the inescapable consequences brought on by that film title element again. Despite trying to bring gravitas into those lines and moments, the results are far too genteel and, frankly, boring. That shouldn’t happen with the immense talent present.