' ' Cinema Romantico: The Little Things

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Little Things

“The Little Things” goes back to 1993 when Steven Spielberg was offered the script and passed. In finally bringing it to the big screen, John Lee Hancock might have wanted to maintain the 1990 setting (the opening B-52s cut is less about dissonance than sonic time stamping) simply to make a smartphoneless thriller, though what he achieves, in part, is also a throwback to a time when three Oscar winners might have taken these roles just to see what they could register on the Chewing Scenery Scale. Denzel Washington is a 7, if only because he acts a little too; Rami Malek is a 5; Jared Leto is a 9. In this way, I enjoyed “The Little Things”, though John Lee Hancock aims for something even more than a throwback in opting for a purposeful lack of resolution. I might have enjoyed that too if he had the moment of truth feels less like a culmination rather than willful misdirection in the name of empty shock. 

Washington is Joe “Deke” Deacon, Sheriff’s Deputy of Kern County. In these early scenes, between the costuming and framing and his deferential air in the presence of his superior, Washington virtually shrinks, feeling very much like a guy in Bakersfield just trying to get by. Deke, though, is sent to pick up evidence in Los Angeles and, upon arriving, inadvertently peeves Joe Baxter (Rami Malek), an L.A. County’s new head detective. Gradually Deke’s backstory trickles out, that he used to be an L.A. Sheriff’s detective too but left, plagued by an unsolved serial killer case. And so when he tags along with Baxter on a crime scene visit and recognizes similarities to his outstanding case, Deke forgoes returning to Bakersfield to assist Baxter and right the wrong from his past. Not long after he emerges from a thrift shop wearing a suit that might be second-hand but nevertheless finally strikes the air we’ve been waiting for; he walks into that thrift shop as Deke and walks out as Denzel. In the scene where he seizes on Suspect #1, clues might have led him there but the way Denzel plays it, suddenly cocking his head and looking back, a gleam in his eye and a big grin on his face, it’s more like he just picked up a scent.

Playing coy with Deke’s past allows Hancock to include two detective stories for the price of one, with Deke and Baxter tracking the serial killer but Baxter also trying to uncover why Deke is so obsessed with this case in the first place. Malek is best in these moments, his small, suspicious smile and stuck out jaw turning standard reverse shots into smug poetry, like he knows Deke is hiding something. Eventually, however, it becomes clear this facial expression is all Malek has, and at the movie’s pivotal point, when he is called upon to summon a countenance that will make us travel back through the whole movie in the space of a second to let the weight of everything drop, he fails and the moment falls flat. 

The closer Deke and Baxter get to unmasking the killer, the closer these two unlikely allies become as Baxter senses Deke is not so much hiding something as battling inner demons. Hancock literalizes these moments when Deke lays in bed and stares at past crime scene photos and converses with the dead. Despite such grandeur, Washington sells Deke’s turmoil better in small moments, like a scene with his character’s ex-wife where, upon her standard issue question of whether he has been good, Washington has him say “Yup” three or four times fast it feels like he is trying to keep something at bay.

Leto, on the other hand, playing Sparma, the primary serial killer suspect, goes all in on actorly transformation. Though his character works at an appliance repair shop, he looks more like a 24-hour fry cook, covered in grease, with zombie eyes and a limp. It’s like if Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” came from a 90s music video, or something. Sparma, we learn, might just be a put-on, someone obsessed with the evil deeds of serial killers but not one himself, and Leto leans so hard into this idea that the performance itself threatens to become a put-on, which unintentionally crosses the streams and become too much like an actor researching a role rather than some kook amusing himself. 

Though you can detect a difference between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, it is not a yawning gap, Hancock emitting an impressive sense of place by evoking this L.A. as one on the outskirts, far from the center of action, evoking an older Los Angeles, to quote Roger Ebert discussing “Chinatown”, “a small city in a large desert.” Indeed, the movie closes outside the city, off the freeway, in the middle of nowhere, in the desert. It’s a conclusion that evokes “Chinatown”, too, or tries to, with the hands of fate gradually ensnaring its characters. The problem is, though, unlike “Chinatown”, which allowed that sense of fate to gradually settle, Hancock springs it on us all at once, courtesy of those dovetailing storylines of suspense. That makes the end more like “Seven”, except in forgoing an answer, Hancock leaves us hanging, trying to find an answer by putting the pieces of the puzzle together in our heads rather than realizing the answer has already emotionally ensconced us. 

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