Updated: Jan 27, 2021
The detective story is a popular and enduring genre in the movies.
From The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Chinatown (1974) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), private investigators have brilliantly untangled the most sinister and perplexing crimes.
Popular within the detective genre are the “buddy films” in which a younger, inexperienced cop, often pairs up with an older, wiser mentor. I’m thinking of movies like Se7en (1995) with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, or any of the Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
The Little Things falls into this category. It’s about an older cop, Joe “Deke” Deacon (played by Denzel Washington) who finds himself drawn into an L.A. murder investigation being conducted by Jim Baxter (played by Rami Malek).
Baxter is ambitious but lacking in street smarts and the kind of investigative knowledge that can only be gained through years of experience dealing with ugly reality.
The story begins with the gristly torture and murder of a young prostitute that may be part of a string of similar murders that have remained unsolved.
The Little Things plays like Se7en meets the TV series CSI, with a little touch of Chinatown (1974) thrown in for good measure.
It’s dark and creepy, a juicy, bitter slice of contemporary film noir.
The case is puzzling. The man they are after is crafty and elusive.
But after some initial snooping and sniffing around, the shreds of evidence seem to point to Albert Sparma (played by Jared Leto), a loner with a police record who looks and acts suspiciously like the killer they are after.
Sparma is a blue collar guy who likes to hang out at the local gentlemen’s club when he’s not being reclusive and low-key.
He fits the description of someone capable of committing the murders, but the question remains whether he was actually responsible for any or all of them.
Leto creates a genuinely frightening character through the use of make-up and hair styling.
His Sparma is a low-life, redneck kind of guy with long greasy hair, a scruffy beard, shabby clothing, and dark brown eyes that stare with the menacing, soul piercing gaze of a Charles Manson.
He appears to be a little paunchy and soft but is surprisingly cocky and defiant when he is hauled in and interrogated by the police.
His behavior is exasperating and infuriating. He manages to bring out the investigators’ worst behavior.
They despise him.
But is he a murderer? While the mounting evidence would seem to suggest that, it all remains frustratingly inconclusive.
The search for the truth pushes the buddy cops to cross the line of acceptable police work in order to try to achieve justice.
In the best detective stories, the main character often twists the rules or breaks the law in his efforts to bring a criminal down.
He does it for the greater good. It’s what makes someone like Dirty Harry dirty.
He will stop at nothing. Hiding behind the law won’t save you when he draws that Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum.
The Little Things benefits from a pretty solid, time-tested premise.
In general terms, it’s familiar ground for detective story fans -- a disturbing story about young women being brutalized and murdered by a psychotic killer.
It also benefits from the inclusion of three Oscar-winning lead actors: Denzel Washington for Training Day (2001) and Glory (1989), Rami Malek, for Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Jared Leto, for Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
Their casting and collaboration here is impressive and a strong incentive to see this movie.
What doesn’t entirely work is a storyline, filled with details that don’t always add up. Not only the clues to the case, but the sometimes head-scratching developments.
Without giving away any spoilers, there are scenes that are dramatic and suspenseful but not logical or believable. They just don’t make a lot of sense.
To its credit, there is one huge story twist that does work in the final reel.
It’s a dark, unexpected turn that is less about solving a murder cases than saving a partner’s sanity, and perhaps his very soul.
The Little Things refers to the little things that lead to the solving of a case. As one of the characters says, “It’s the little things that tear you apart. It’s the little things that get you caught.”
Nothing could be truer in this raw, unglamorized tale of two dedicated cops trying to solve a brutal crime committed in a dark, deranged world that seems to have escaped the attention of God Himself.
It’s reflective of the final, surrendering, illuminating line of Chinatown. A crushing admission of the way things work.
The Little Things is a morality tale. About what really matters in the end. When it’s all said and done.
The Little Things opens in theaters and on HBO Max on January 29.