Is there a star as consistently reliable as Denzel Washington? In today’s age, the currency of movie-stars seems to be falling — Say it ain’t so! — as IP brands take center stage. And yet, Washington has remained arguably our most endearing star, the kind of presence at the movies who can sell a project just on his name alone.
In November, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott at the New York Times crowned Washington the best actor of the 21st century in their piece on the 25 best performers of the last two decades. Before even reading what both esteemed critics wrote, it occurred to me that the title bestowed to Washington was rather obvious. Who else at the movies has remained that captivating to watch for that long at the movies, regardless of the movie’s quality around him. As exhilarating as it is to watch him sink his teeth into historical figures like Malcolm X or Pulitzer Prize-winning material like Fences, there’s something to be said about the middle to low-brow entries in Washington’s filmography.
After all, there’s something to be said for Washington’s skill at elevating even the most disposable of pictures into highly watchable pieces of entertainment, which is what makes something like The Little Things feel like an event in the dog days of January. Denzel hunting a serial killer, that sounds like a match made in pulpy movie heaven!
The Road From Script to Screen
The film’s director, John Lee Hancock, originally wrote the picture back in the early 90s. And to some degree, The Little Things feels like a relic of another era, one where pictures like Se7en or Silence of the Lambs were box-office candy; a time when audiences wanted to see movie stars in murky light put together the clues and solve grisly murders. Now, that genre is largely confined to TV. The stories are longer, more meandering, and stuffed with copious speeches about whether bad men who do bad things to bad people are actually (wait for it) good?
Yet for as often as these shows or their movie ancestors profess to be subverting tropes, they rarely succeed. They can’t all be Memories of Murder or Zodiac. Instead, these projects rely on style, an aesthetic vision, and captivating stars at their center. That being said, it’s unfortunate many of the filmmakers who originally flirted with The Little Things over the years, Spielberg, Eastwood, Beatty, even Danny DeVito, ultimately passed on the project. Close to 30 years later, Hancock himself is in the director’s chair. But despite a successful resume as a steady journeyman filmmaker, with mid-budget projects like The Blind Side, The Rookie, and The Founder, his filmmaking lacks both the edginess and the urgency to make a project like this truly leap-off the page.
When Performances Fall Out of Sync
Even still, few times in recent years, have I watched anything as out of sync as the three central performances in The Little Things. Washington, along with fellow Oscar-winning co-stars Rami Malek and Jared Leto, all appear to be acting in separate pictures or repelling each other onscreen like oil meeting water.
Here, Washington is haunted and restrained. There’s pain behind his eyes and weariness that the world may be moving on, but the demons of the past sure aren’t. Yet that past doesn’t come into the picture until Washington’s character, Deke, crosses paths with the LAPD’s hottest new detective, played — oof, well get to this later, by Malek. It’s here the movie’s cracks show, Washington is perfectly capable of holding the screen with his weathered, stoic presence, but that stillness requires a combusting element to break against.
Malek from frame one feels out of sync. He’s an actor who excels at stillness and aura of unknowability. That’s largely what made him effective on the series Mr. Robot, but here, as a hot-shot police detective, it renders his presence detached and awkward. One would be forgiven for expecting some twist by which he is the killer. Oops, is that a spoiler?
What good detective stories need is balance, a yin, and yang. Take Se7en, for example, a film that shares similarities with The Little Things in more ways than one. Both Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt work beautifully in that picture because their performances are complimentary, Freeman taking the haunted veteran, while Pitt, the overconfident youngster. On the contrary, both Malek and Washington‘s stillness act against the movie, rendering it airless. There’s nothing to push up against, no electricity in their scenes. For another counter duo, check out Washington’s chemistry with Chris Pine in Tony Scott’s absurdly fun Unstoppable.
One might imagine a better movie with Malek in Leto‘s role, whose performance as the case’s chief suspect is best described as high camp. Unfortunately, the otherworldliness that Malek’s presence brings to the role of Detective Baxter would arguably make more sense through the man whose bizarre off-kilter mannerisms draw the suspicion of the film’s two lead detectives. But, instead, we get Leto, whose acting seems to have morphed from inhabiting slickly distrusting characters to aggressively over-method since winning an Oscar in 2014.
Whether a trap house rendition of the Joker in Suicide Squad or a blind tech mogul with a god complex in Blade Runner 2049, there always seems to be something unnecessarily extreme about the performances, as though they were merely an array of bold prosthetic choices and bizarre mannerisms in search of a character. With his enlarged beer gut, fake nose, and Rain Man meets Charlie Manson’s demeanor; it’s hard not to at least find Leto amusing, but he does feel pulled from a much sillier movie.
“It’s the little things that are important, Jimmy. It’s the little things that get you caught,” states Denzel’s character to Rami. I have to wonder whether or not that line was written as a self-congratulatory declaration of the movie’s own perceived greatness? The Little Things wants to be a movie absorbed in its meticulous clues and details. Yet, many of its key pieces and performances feel totally out of sync with each other, creating a suspense thriller that stumbles over itself at nearly every possible moment.
The Little Things is currently streaming on HBO Max.
What did you think? Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below!
Watch The Little Things
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.