No film can survive the double-shot of Rami Malek and Jared Leto as two-sides-of-the-same-coin characters in a psychological detective thriller. Not even The Little Things, written and directed by John Lee Hancock and led by Denzel Washington, only the coolest movie star working today. Washington has done more for genre films of this type—engrossing whodunnits you’ll happily watch on TV a decade later—than most anyone else. Yet even he can’t bring life to this vacuum.
Set in 1990, after having been in development since about then, The Little Things centres on Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington), a former LAPD homicide detective now working as a deputy in Kern County. As the plot dictates, he’s drawn back to the city and hooked into staying by a grizzly new murder that may be connected to a case from his past. He’s also invited to lend a hand by hotshot cop Jim Baxter (Malek), who looks for all the world like a kid wearing his dad’s suit. Malek’s presence in this film just does not work, even with Hancock and Washington’s attempts to power through on sheer professionalism. Matters are made worse by Leto, who somehow gives his character an unbelievable aura as both a “normal guy” and a potential serial killer. While Washington does his thing—as literally only he can—and Hancock tries to keep things moving, it’s never not absurd to watch Malek and Leto act, especially in their scenes together. The film around their characters does have its qualities, but they unite to undo any sense of that.
There would be something more to salvage from The Little Things if this acting didn’t expose another keen problem: there’s just not much to the mystery here. While Hancock’s script dutifully sets up its cat-and-mouse game between the cops and their target, it mostly just goes through these motions. There’s no grander ambition here, which would be fine—especially with Denzel on hand—if the other nuts-and-bolts of the film were better. The case is simply too open-and-shut.