MOVIE REVIEW: John Lee Hancock’s THE LITTLE THINGS is a throwback to the 90’s neo-noir thriller genre.


THE LITTLE THINGS feels at home along 90’s procedurals like SEVEN, 8MM, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but its lead performances by Rami Malek and Denzel Washington make it appointment viewing.

One of my favorite genres back when I was first getting into films in the 1990s was the neo-noir procedural thriller, a genre that has largely disappeared from the silver screen after being fodder for most prime-time and cable TV series since the rise of shows like CSI and Law and Order and their various spin-offs. But, back in the 1990s, procedural thrillers, following increasingly jaded law enforcement officials, private investigators, straight-laced federal agents, and other civil servants as they tried to reconcile their beliefs with the impending threat of a charismatic sociopath made for appointment viewing on the big screen. From Seven, to 8MM, to Basic Instinct, and The Silence of the Lambs, neo-noir thrillers tend to be interesting character studies that show a world of black and white morality slowly bleed into shades of grey upon a glimpse of the unimaginable and those cracks bleed into every aspect of the ordered officer’s life. Relationships are forever changed, children become more precious, and the past becomes a panacea that can never be reached but is always longed for,a cure-all for the dangerous knowledge that shades of grey can bring to our protagonist’s world.

This longing for a simpler world once one knows what’s behind the curtain when you live in a world of shades of grey is a key motivation for the protagonists in Hancock’s latest. We follow Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), a former homicide detective in LA County who had a reputation as the biggest clearer of caseloads in his department for 15 years until an incident on the job costs him his marriage, his health, and his badge, and makes him persona non grata in his department. He’s a patrolman in Bakersfield whose biggest concern is responding to pranks done by local hooligans at a chain steakhouse until his CO forces him to head to LA to pick up some important forensic evidence needed for a criminal case. Once back in LA, we see how Deacon is revered by some officers for his former work ethic and reputation, but seen as a living example of how being obsessed with a case can derail your life by his former chief and other higher-ups.

One of these detectives who is aware of Deacon’s reputation is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a straight-laced homicide detective who has taken Deacon’s place as the top dog in the Homicide division. A family man with a religious core, Baxter is seen as someone who is going places in the department. He and Deacon butt heads upon meeting, but come to build camaraderie when Deacon helps find a break in the serial killer case Baxter is working. However, this taste of involvement in the investigation comes to haunt Deacon as he starts to believe that this case and the case that sent him off the rails years ago may be linked. He tells Baxter it’s the little things that get you caught, but it is also the little things that draw you into a world of obsession.

Obsession is the connective tissue in the film between its three leads. Malek’s Baxter becomes gradually obsessed with catching this killer on his watch; he sees himself as working for the victim and his job isn’t done until that killer is caught, no matter the strain it starts to take on himself and his family. Washington’s Deacon is obsessed and consumed by the ghosts of his unsolved case and how they haunt him. He comes to believe that helping on this case may be the only way he can exorcize himself of the guilt that led to his disgrace and the failure to catch the killer years ago. It is also the allure that brings in Albert Sperma (Jared Leto), a potential suspect who is also a true-crime buff. As Baxter and Deacon both close in on him, he begins to relish their obsession with him, while his obsession may or may not be a sign that he is the devil in the details that they are looking for.

The Little Things works best as a character study of Baxter and Deacon and how both men slowly start to become the other even though it behooves them not to be. Deacon longs for the past; he only listens to a 50’s doo-wop station on the radio, one that is on its last legs. Baxter longs for order, even as he sees that results only come when you step outside the lines. Washington makes Deacon seem like a 3-dimensional person nurturing a lot of pain and darkness, while Malek convincingly conveys the slippery slope his detective goes down. Leto’s hollow face and stringy face draw you in and it makes you wonder if only his Suicide Squad Joker has been like this, how much better that portrayal could have been. But ultimately, his character is a bit one-note, a John Doe ex machina who is there to lead you to the film’s shocking climax that will likely be talked about much. Hancock gets a lot out of the film’s premise, but it does seem a bit dated and conventional in the wake of films that have come before it like Seven. He gets the most from his performers, but at the same time, it does seem like there’s more that could have been mined here.

Ultimately, The Little Things is going to have a niche appeal to those who like dark psychological thrillers; it doesn’t offer a lot in terms of new but hosts some magnetic performances from Malek and Washington. For that reason alone, it is worth the watch and the intrigue of seeing Hancock craft a neo-noir 90s Los Angeles that draws you in, even if it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It gives you the trappings of a good procedural thriller, but if you’ve been a fan of the genre, you’ll be able to crack this textbook case.