The Little Things and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Say what you will about HBO Max’s plan on releasing movies on their service the same day as theaters, it’s done a heck of a lot more to get me excited about watching movies again than anything else has in the past year. Sure the movies never STOPPED coming out whether it was on other streaming services or on VOD, but HBO giving us a list of first run movies that we can expect to see this year gives me something to build a schedule around which very few things have been able to do since this whole pandemic started. Heck, it’s half the reason I started my Halo Retrospective so that I’d have something to work towards every single week! So with all that being said, is this movie the start of a renewed sense of vigor for my aspirations of becoming a film critic, or has Warner Bros gotten me all hyped up for even more drivel that wasn’t going to hack it at the theater anyway? Let’s find out!!
Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is your typical washed up patrol man. He works in a dead end nowhere town and is happy to write parking tickets and scarf down doughnuts until his retirement, but he is forced to go to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence in a relevant case, and as soon as he gets there it’s clear that he has a bad history with this particular precinct. There’s at least one detective however who doesn’t seem to care that he’s back in town, and he’s the new hot shot Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) who’s working on a solving a series of murders that definitely look to be connected but he’s unable to finger a suspect on them. With Joe being back in his old town and Jim having to deal with the disappearance of Rhonda Rathburn (Maya Kazan) who could very well be the serial killer’s next victim, they begrudging start working together as Joe seems to be trying to redeem himself for something bad in his past and Jim is starting to wonder if he’s good enough to find this killer in the first place. Through some sly investigation they manage to find some dude with the unfortunate name of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) who seems to be their guy, but they are just having a heck of a time trying to find conclusive evidence that’ll put this guy away for good. Will Joe and Jim learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and faults to become best buddies as they spend all their time following this weirdo around? What exactly is Sparma up to, and is he playing games with everyone without them realizing it? Is there any way we could just cut to the chase on this or will we spend half this movie sitting in a car as bored out of our minds as these two?
Yeah, 2021 is definitely not starting off with a bang and neither is HBO Max’s MOVIES AT HOME deal because the only reason I’m not going to rant myself blue in the face about this movie is because I DIDN’T have to see it in a theater. The key word here is BORING as there are an almost infinite amount of thrillers, cop procedurals, and serial killer movies and shows out there that you could point as better examples of what this tortuously tries to get across in its painfully overlong run time. Imagine if Gone Baby Gone had nothing to say about North Eastern poverty or if Hannibal was a TV-PG series and you might get an idea of just how watered down this film is as it takes its sweet time to outline the obvious, play with ideas that aren’t the least bit novel, and too self-assured in its own themes to provide any amount of visceral satisfaction or shock. The movie has the right ending and the last twenty minutes or so DO show you what this movie could have been, but boy does is it an utter drag getting up to that point.
The movie was written, directed, AND produced by the same person so PASSION PROJECT seems to the order of the day here and it frankly has more than a few notable signs of such. The movie is paced with all the urgency of a snail on its day off, and it’s overstuffed with seemingly meaningless scenes that I’m sure were very interesting and vital to the director’s unique vision but feel like total plot cul-de-sacs or just general wastes of time. I’m not sure why they felt the need to have Denzel go to TWO different repair shops when only one proved to have any relevance to the story, but I guess if you’re paying for Denzel then you’re gonna use all the Denzel you film. On top of that, there’s a sense that this film just isn’t finished yet; not in The Snowman sense that they very blatantly only got maybe two thirds of the shots they needed, but there are characters who show up and then don’t actually DO anything (the missing woman’s parents spring to mind as does Rami Malek’s family) and some of the shots feel like they were severely compromised by scheduling issues. There’s one shot where Jared Leto is going through a police station and a witness sees them, yet at no point do they actually share the screen together as the shots are completely locked off from one another which was perhaps the most jarring moment in the film, but there’s a general sense that people aren’t in the same place at the same time and that this was being pieced together in reshoots with added cast members. Not exactly the tight production you want for what is supposed to be a taut thriller, but frankly the editing is the least of the film’s problem.
The BIGGEST problem is that for a movie is about obsession, and yet we never get the sense that these characters are all THAT obsessed. Denzel Washington gives a good speech (one of the few highlights of the movie) where he explains how any victim by pure happenstance can become the one that you can ruin your life over, but I STILL couldn’t tell you why Rami Malek was became this way about Rhonda Rathbun. Did she look like his wife or his daughters? Does she remind him of someone in his past, or perhaps her disappearance was the last straw to his Super Cop ego? I have absolutely no idea and it would have been SO easy to solve this issue which seems pretty vital as it’s the central theme of the movie and the impetuous for everything that happens in the third act! I really don’t want to come down too hard on the performances because of just how vanilla and spread thin all the characters are written but it just doesn’t feel like anyone is particularly invested in their roles, and they’re just phoning it in. Malek obviously has the hardest part to play here as he’s the one who’s supposed to grow and change, but I just can’t figure out what he’s going for in ANY of his scenes. He’s aloof but not in a way that belies greater intelligence or hidden emotions; he’s just kind of a blank slate that wanders from scene to scene without much emotion or even a consistent tone of voice which made it that much harder to buy his obsession with the case. Denzel and Leto at least have what you could argue are more SHOWY roles with the former being the wise but severely damaged mentor and the latter as every prime time television serial killer you ever saw (aside from the ones on Hannibal who were ACTUALLY well written) but even they are only adding a drop of flavor to a watered down stew.
Where the movie finally starts to feel like it’s about something is in the third act which I won’t spoil here but definitely comes around to being about the themes that the movie is clumsily playing with and frankly defies our expectations of the genre in a very clever way. Nowadays it’s becoming a bit passe for the COP WHO DOES WHATEVER IT TAKES TO GET THE TRUTH trope to fly without irony or a VERY strong story, and this feels like a direct confrontation of that very idea. Being obsessed about something doesn’t mean that you’re going to do it better than someone with a more realistic perspective of the situation, and it’s a doubly hard pill to swallow when it comes to something as grim as this. With a stronger emphasis on these themes throughout and a tighter run time with better gut punch moments throughout, it really could have made this movie a classic, but it’s failings in the first two acts are just too much weight for this film to carry.
Gone Baby Gone is probably the best comparison to make here as the obsessive search for justice in that film has its own tragic end that doesn’t REALLY reflect what happens here but tries to get to that level of intensity. The difference is that Gone Baby Gone was good from top to bottom and was about all sorts of things instead of just teeing us up for the big twist at the end, and that’s what this film lacks. It lacks the characters that you want to invest it, it lacks a sense of urgency or even dread that drives the action forward, and while Gone Baby Gone doesn’t exactly have ACTION scenes it does give you those sense of thrills to punctuate the narrative which are sorely lacking here. Everyone just kind of drifts through the movie in a haze of bland writing and halfhearted effort which made this an utter chore to sit through, and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. AT MOST it’s got a decent twist at the end you might want to check out, but there’s just no justifying the run time that drags everything out interminably. One of the risks with releasing something on a streaming service is that you have THAT much more competition and this one fails to measure up to most of them. If you’re looking for an HBO Max procedural with some real drama and weight to it, I’d definitely recommend their reboot of Perry Mason while this one should get banished to the bottom of the algorithm; only to be recommended to those who have seen everything else or are looking for a sleep aid.