The first of HBO Max's 2021 film slate was released yesterday, and it seems like little has changed when it comes to the quality of movies typically released in January. The Little Things, written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side and The Highwaymen), is a crime drama and thriller, although the thrills are hard to come by. Starring Denzel Washington, who is incapable of a bad performance, The Little Things hinges on its star power, with Rami Malek and Jared Leto filling out the rest of the lead cast. Washington plays Joe Deacon, a former LA Detective now deputy sheriff of a small California town who is roped into assisting Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), a hotshot detective who has essentially filled Joe's spot since he left the department. The two team up on a mildly convoluted serial killer case that attempts to be as sinister as the case in Se7en, but to no avail.
The Little Things feels like a first draft of a script that, with the right amount of reworking, has the potential to be a compelling serial killer drama. Unfortunately, it never really takes off into becoming anything truly gripping. Joe and Jimmy are interesting enough, but that's mostly thanks to Washington and Malek whose scenes are only worth paying attention to when they're actually talking to each other and not tailing a suspect in what feels like real-time. If the trailer didn't go out of its way to show-off how creepy Jared Leto is as prime suspect Albert Sparma, his character could have been the saving grace that this slow-to-start story needed. But with that knowledge, it's difficult to feel any real threat from him, especially since with further investigation, no real evidence is uncovered to tie him to the murders.
While the opening of the film is somewhat intriguing, it soon becomes quite clear that the story itself is very unfocused. A girl driving home late at night is stalked by a mysterious man until she's able to get the attention of a truck passing by, and then it cuts to a title card. It's not revealed until about halfway through what actually happens to her. The first act is filled with two other murders and a woman going missing, all of which happens in what seems to be the span of about two days. With the case itself being so muddled, it's hard to develop any real connection to it since the focus from victim to victim shifts quite rapidly without any real important details being fleshed out. While other parts of the story take its sweet time, the case itself is quite rushed in its development, a detrimental factor that deeply affects the rest of the movie.
Once Jared Leto shows up, it's obvious that writer/director John Lee Hancock was channelling his inner David Fincher in an attempt to make Leto as memorable as Kevin Spacey is as the killer in Se7en. Leto is certainly fine and creepy in the role, but the overall point and motivation of his character is not nearly as clear as Spacey's John Doe is. Instead, Hancock relies too heavily on the creep factor, making Leto come off as more of a cartoonish version of a potential serial killer than an actual one. The stakes are also not nearly as high as they should be, making the ending a lacklustre conclusion to a very mediocre story.
If it weren't for Washington and Malek, The Little Things would be almost unbearable to sit through. Luckily, Washington's natural charm and Malek's authentic sincerity help make it watchable, making it possible for viewers to connect to their characters. While Hancock had all the elements of a compelling slow-burn crime thriller, all that The Little Things amounts to is a slow and forgettable Denzel Washington movie.