Noir and Neo-Noir are among my favorite genres of fiction. Steeped in cynicism and moral ambiguity, noir stories are almost always based in character studies wrapped in crime fiction. The film The Little Things, starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, tries to stick the landing but fails to fully utilize the genre to its fullest effect.
There are some spoilers in this review, so you’ve been warned.
Noir fiction grew out of post-World War II America, a time where morality and cynicism were growing in American consciousness. The cynicism inherent in Noir translates over to Neo-Noir, the more recent reinvention that appeared first in the 1970s, was a response to growing disconnection with American idealism that permeated the culture before being fractured in the 1960s. In many ways, it was the polar opposite response to the freedom and love message of the previous decade. Since then, neo-noir has been handled well by many directors and storytellers, using the settings and tricks of noir to play with audience expectations and subvert them in many cases.
Denzel Washington is excellent in this picture, bringing a somber, almost brow-beaten charisma to his role as Joe Deacon. Long outcast from the premier homicide team for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Deacon is one of the hard-boiled detectives the genre is fond of: a methodical, relentless detective who wants to finish the job he started, even if he has to go through hell to do it. Rami Malek plays off Denzel very well, proving that his talented turn as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was no fluke performance. Malek’s character Jim Baxter is cut from similar cloth as Deacon, just with some different dyes used in the manufacturing. Both of these men give no quarter to their job. In the few scenes outside of the case, you can see the strain of the work taking its toll on Baxter, as it has taken its toll on Deacon.
I have to admit that I’m a bit biased against Jared Leto. I can’t say that I’ve been a big fan of his movie career over the years. But I was willing to put that aside to see what he could do in this picture. And he surprised me. His character, Albert Sparma, is a classic villain that one finds in noir fiction: aloof, enigmatic, and smarmy to the point of being creepy. Sparma needs to be these things for the story to work and Leto does the best he can with the material given to him.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story just doesn’t fit that well together to make these performances fit the narrative. The central mystery of if Sparma is guilty or not fits the ambiguity of noir fiction but it’s not fully baked into the pie, so to speak. The crust is still spongy and the filling didn’t quite finish baking completely. There are kernels of good moments throughout the film but they don’t coalesce into a complete story. And the ending involving Baxter killing Sparma felt like the writer/director John Lee Hancock was going for an ending like Seven but the setup prior to that moment didn’t feel as earned as it did in David Fincher’s film. Seven’s ending works because we’ve been given enough time to see the deeds of John Doe to know that he is evil. Sparma just comes across as an obsessed fan, so to speak. Creepy as hell but without the sign posts to the audience that he may be more guilty than he seems. The Little Things feels like a missed opportunity to me. It looked as if this was going to be a much stronger story but it ended up feeling flat and uninspired at times.