A good crime procedural requires basically two things to work. One, a compelling cast of believable characters, and two, a case/mystery that can intrigue the audience enough to invest in the step-by-step process of figuring everything out. Now, there are only so many of these types of stories to tell, so naturally over the years you’re going to get some repeated ideas. But if you have those two basic elements, the audience is likely to forgive the derivative plot points and ultimately endorse the movie with their money and praise.
Unfortunately, John Lee Hancock’s neo-noir The Little Things only accomplishes 0.5 of those things. He does in fact have a compelling cast, including Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, as well as a thankless support role for Natalie Morales, who I just love to see get work, as she’s one of the most underrated actresses working today. But that’s all this film has. Despite the star power in the spotlight, the characters themselves aren’t really believable. And as for the underlying mystery, it’s lifted wholesale from much better films, which is even more shameful. Ostensibly Hancock’s script is original, not based on any source material and therefore not beholden to any intellectual property or studio demands. In fact, given that Hancock originally wrote the script in 1993, a lot of the films this movie rips off would be the ones stealing from him had it been produced back then. But it’s been almost 30 years, and genre-defining crime dramas have come out since, so to leave those plot elements in tact – or worse, to add them into future drafts – reeks of narrative laziness if not outright theft.
With that in mind, why did I even bother watching this, especially considering it currently stands at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes? Well, because despite its myriad flaws, it’s still getting awards consideration. The film is shortlisted in two Oscar categories, and Leto has received Supporting Actor nominations from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, which heavily suggests he’ll get one from the Academy as well.
So what I’m going to do is what I do with a fair amount of regularity when we get close to Blitz time. I’ll review the film as it is (spoiler: NOT GREAT!), and then I’ll break down the specific areas where it’s being looked at for the hardware. This is not a good movie, but there’s a chance that there are elements worth lauding.
Set in 1990 – presumably to eliminate the conveniences of cell phones and internet searches, since the only outright 90s references are lower gas prices, older cars, and a Mortal Kombat arcade tower (which is placed in error as the game didn’t come out until 1992) – the film begins with a young girl on a dark desert highway in California (no word on the coolness of the wind in her hair) being stalked and pursued by an unseen man in a car. In a scene that feels like an outtake from Nocturnal Animals, she’s chased to a gas station, which is closed, and then on foot through the desert until she’s able to flag down a semi truck, thus saving herself.
We then cut to Bakersfield, where Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Deacon (Washington) is told to go down to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence that might be relevant to a murder investigation. This is merely a half-assed plot device to get Deacon to L.A., and has no real bearing on the story, but it allows us to waste five minutes showing that Deacon lives alone in a remote house and feeds a stray dog. Woo! Character development!
Anyway, when he gets to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, we find that he’s persona non grata, having left the department five years previous after a series of unsolved killings. He accompanies the man who is essentially his replacement, Detective Jim Baxter (Malek) to a crime scene for another mysterious death that fits the profile of the previous cases. Deacon decides to take personal time off to assist, in hopes of clearing his conscience from his previous failure. A cop being haunted by his past? Surely we are breaking down and subverting every trope here, people (somewhere Professor Frink’s Sarcasm Detector just exploded)! Deacon and Baxter are initially antagonistic, but come to a professional understanding as they search for clues. Meanwhile, another young woman is abducted while jogging home in the middle of the night. Let that be a lesson, folks. Never go jogging.
The two take different tacks in looking for suspects and information, with Deacon doing so many patently illegal things that even if they somehow came up with irrefutable evidence against the culprit, any competent judge would dismiss the case instantly due to police misconduct. Deacon’s well outside his jurisdiction (Kern County, home of Bakersfield, is over 100 miles from L.A.), he tampers with evidence, and he interviews and intimidates potential witnesses without a warrant. Literally every scrap of information he gathers would be inadmissible. But this serial killer is Deacon’s White Whale, so it’s all considered kosher to propel the story. Remember what I said about a compelling case? This is the exact opposite of that.
Through circumstantial links at best, Deacon and Baxter settle on a person of interest, an appliance repairman named Albert Sparma (Leto), who is a self-professed crime buff, but has no other red flags other than looking creepy. He delights in taunting the duo since they’ve honed in on him as the killer, until we eventually get to a climax that plays like an abandoned remake of Se7en.
I wish I could get behind some of this, but the story structure and dialogue are just terrible. There’s religious posturing (Deacon sees a cross on a hill at two different points on the highway), including the two cops discussing their belief in God (cause his name’s DEACON, you see). Baxter has a textbook perfect nuclear family that could be threatened if things go awry to give him motivation. Sparma gives Baxter the whole “We’re a lot alike” speech, which along with its brother, “We’re not so different, you and I” are so clichéd that simply typing them into a script should get you kicked out of the Writers Guild at this point. Deacon literally grabs Sparma’s dick during interrogation, claiming his erection is proof of guilt. What in the actual retail fuck? The whole thing is just a mess, and even when we get the oh so twisty twist ending that reveals Deacon’s demons (I wonder if he went to Wake Forest), it’s too dumb for words and I’m too tired to care.
So what about the awards areas? Can that at least elevate this above “total failure” status? Strictly speaking, yes, but that’s not saying much. Let’s start with the two Oscar categories, which are Original Score and Makeup & Hairstyling. The score was composed by Thomas Newman, a regular in this category, and features some suspenseful piano and metal percussion. I’ll admit that the film never bored me, and part of the reason was this score. Is it fully Oscar-worthy? Hard to say, because it’s supplemented by a catalog soundtrack of 50s and 60s love songs from the fictional (for this movie anyway) radio station, KHRT or K-Heart, which I believe is supposed to be a riff on KRTH or K-Earth, which plays classic pop in Los Angeles. For what it’s worth, the real KHRT is a Christian station in North Dakota. Anyway, the music is supposed to inform Deacon’s “old school” approach to crime-solving, but half the time it just intrudes on the proceedings, including a bit where Deacon and Baxter get caught in traffic tailing Sparma on a city bus, and the radio plays “I Will Follow Him.” I’m sure Hancock thought this was clever, but really it’s just sad.
As for the Makeup & Hairstyling, I will give some credit here. There are basically two areas where this comes into play, which bodes well for its nomination chances, as this is a “bake-off” category, where the appropriate branch watches a seven-minute presentation of this one particular element rather than the entire two hour movie. It’s how a lot of subpar films end up getting nominations, particularly Maleficent and Suicide Squad off the top of my head. One, the corpses are decorated in a grotesque, but well-done fashion, enough to make you feel just a tad disturbed while leaving the gorier stuff to your imagination. Two, there’s Jared Leto. In their quest to make him look menacing, they gave him gangly, greasy hair, a scraggly beard, and a fat suit to give him a paunch. It’s effective for what it sets out to do. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but between this and the score, it’s what had me paying attention all the way to the end, and in a movie this bad, that in itself is an achievement.
Finally, there’s Jared Leto as Sparma. None of the three main performances are that good. Denzel just sort of plays like he’s tired throughout the film, and while Rami Malek is normally tremendous, I just didn’t buy his big swinging dick persona. I rarely comment on whether someone “looks” the part, but Malek is too gaunt to be convincing as an overly aggressive cop. But both of them are more Oscar-worthy than Leto is here. His entire performance (which doesn’t even begin until the halfway mark of the film) is basically Hannibal Lecter meets John Doe. He gets a giddy thrill out of toying with the cops, and for the briefest of moments it’s entertaining, but as Baxter points out during his interrogation, if Sparma’s a crime buff, he has to know that being cooperative is the easiest way to make all of this go away. There’s no motivation for him to be adversarial, whether he’s the killer or not. The taunting gets us nowhere, and his presentation and mannerisms are so completely over the top that we’re more apt to assume he’s a red herring, rendering this all a waste of time. He was more subtle when he was The Joker. On the whole Leto’s a great actor, but there’s nothing about this performance that screams “Oscar” to me, especially over the likes of Paul Raci or Delroy Lindo, both of whom were left off of SAG’s list. I just don’t get it.
This movie is just trope after trope, cliché after cliché, and on the whole it’s not the least bit satisfying. There’s a good cast giving weak performances, the story is a jumble of nothing, and what little it does have going for it was ripped off from better stuff. The two areas where the Academy has shortlisted it are worthy of consideration, but unless the rest of the competition is just awful, I probably wouldn’t nominate it in either one. It helps to raise the film above the level of true garbage, but when you’re going for the industry’s highest honor, you have to do better.
There are two pointless scenes where Baxter nearly throttles a lab technician because he can’t get conclusive fingerprint matches. In the latter, the tech points out that the prints they got match 10 points with Sparma, but you need at least 11 to get LAPD clearance to arrest and 18 for federal charges if the FBI takes over. He then pulls another set of prints which he tells Baxter has eight matching points and therefore could just as easily be the killer. When Baxter asks who they belong to, the tech inks his own thumb to demonstrate that they’re his own prints. Essentially, no matter how badly you want this to be the winner, if you don’t have all the points, it’s just delusional wishful thinking, an ends looking for justified means. If that’s not a metaphor for the entire film, I don’t know what is.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think Jared Leto deserves another Oscar? What was your favorite MK fatality? Let me know!