Contains spoilers for “The Little Things”
“The Little Things” is Warner Bros.’s next-in-line film for release on HBO Max following the announcement that, in light of ongoing movie theater closures across the country, the studio will be debuting major titles on the streaming service throughout 2021. This deal brought “Wonder Woman 1984” to the service on Christmas Day, and will see other blockbuster releases exclusively on HBO Max throughout the year, including “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “The Suicide Squad” and “Dune,” among many others.
John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” is no outlier among the big-name releases slated for this year on HBO Max. The film’s star-studded cast includes frontman Denzel Washington, assisted by Rami Malek and Jared Leto in a true-crime flick that recalls 1950s noir-style detective dramas. Written and directed by Hancock, the film follows former detective Joe Deacon (Washington) as he tries to assist LAPD detective Jim Baxter (Malek) in his hunt for a serial killer believed to have murdered multiple women in particularly gruesome fashions.
At the outset, “The Little Things” lives up to the aesthetic it implores, introducing visuals that cash in on nostalgia for the classic Hollywood detective flick, along with pleasant intermixtures of modern cinematography. Although early on, the editing and direction are shaky at best, this is made up for by the compelling story and characters viewers are introduced to. It’s easy to be drawn in by the mystery that lies at the heart of Hancock’s script, largely attributable to solid plot setup and believable performances from the cast.
Washington’s on-the-edge deputy and Malek’s arrogant detective often ground the story through what sometimes feel like implausible situations. This is especially true in the final act of the film, where most of the tight-knit plot points begin to unravel. Many of the technical issues that arise in “The Little Things” appear to be crammed in this final act, but admittedly are also scattered throughout the latter half of the film. These problems become apparent not long after Leto’s character takes center stage, suggesting Hancock gave up halfway through the writing process.
The solid murder mystery introduced in the first act fades into a mindless character study. Here, there is nothing that propels the plot nor the film forward. The camerawork remains clever, but it isn’t enough to hide the fact that the story itself is half-baked. The script leads audiences to somewhere interesting: a place that could have tackled some fascinating questions regarding police misconduct, mental health and the malfunctioning criminal justice system. Frustratingly, however, “The Little Things” has nothing to say regarding any of these topics.
Hancock leaves us with almost two entirely separate films. One, a murder mystery with intriguing potential — and the other, a stumbling commentary on the trials of being a detective. The latter I mention with a grain of salt, because the film often leaves its purpose entirely vague, almost opaque. Despite this, you can still feel Hancock’s script guiding the viewer like a child through a maze. “The Little Things” very much wants the audience to believe what it thinks it is proposing, yet somewhere in the middle it loses its ability to even muster up a coherent thought. Hancock’s script doesn’t truly know what it is even about.
Put plainly, the finale of “The Little Things” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. After the fully unsurprising murder of Leto’s character in the final act, there is really no further direction for the film to take. It sputters like a dying animal, muttering incoherent gibberish before fading to black. It can be argued that the ending has some profound meaning that might require a 30-minute YouTube video explanation. The hard life of being a detective? Maybe. But the hard truth is that “The Little Things” asks questions it cannot answer, and spews profound nonsense while trying.