“Psychological” is perhaps one of the emptiest, most pointless qualifiers for fiction. It’s often used as a genre modifier — psychological horror, psychological thriller — but the presence of the word psychological in a genre descriptor doesn’t necessarily translate into anything quantifiable. All fiction, by default, is somewhat psychological; all characters, even the ones in Adam Sandler movies, have some form of psychology behind them. The modifier tends to mean that the identified genre will be more “cerebral” and feature significantly less pyrotechnics; a thriller has a car chase, while a psychological thriller is more likely to have someone being slowly and painstakingly stalked through a dark warehouse while they flash back about traumatic events that were dropped in a scene 20 minutes into the film.
John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things is a crime procedural that comes to us tagged with the portentous descriptor of “psychological thriller” and, for most of its running time, it’s not hard to see why. A moody mismatched-cop procedural that’s almost completely devoid of left-field twists, it presents as a meat-and-potatoes airport thriller where the devil is in the details (or, I would be remiss to point out, the titular little things) and where the chief centre of interest is not in whodunit but rather whatitdo to our protagonist. Unfortunately, The Little Things’ screenplay is muddled when it comes to the one thing it tries to do differently than the rest: the dreaded psychology.
Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is the deputy sheriff of sleepy Kern County. A troubled, lonely man, Deke clearly lives in the desert to avoid demons he’s never quite kept at bay. Tasked with going to Los Angeles to pick up some documents, Deke winds up roped into a murder investigation when a young woman is found dead in her apartment. Paired up with young hotshot Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), Deke begins to investigate a case that dredges up disturbing memories from the past and threatens his own ethics in the case, especially when an eccentric suspect (Jared Leto) begins to circle the investigation.
Set in 1990 for both the usual (no cellphones) and unusual (Hancock began writing this script three decades ago) reasons, The Little Things is significantly more interesting from a visual standpoint than one would expect from the genre. Bathed in neon run-off and swathed in inky shadows, The Little Things presents a gorgeous vision of the familiar Los Angeles urban grit that nevertheless has a bit more polish than the cranked-up grit of an actual ’90s psychological thriller. There’s little to no harshly lit, blood-spattered rotting linoleum here, and though the film doesn’t shy away from the usual locations (the morgue, the generic warehouse, etc.), it imbues them with a certain aura of grotesque beauty that I have to admit surprised me coming from Hancock and regular collaborator Robert Schwartzman.
As I mentioned before, The Little Things is doggedly by-the-book in its narrative construction, so much so that its strict adherence to “realism” (inasmuch as this should be something we focus on in a murdery mystery like this one) could be taken as a form of non-conformism in itself. Procedural fiction has become so codified that we come to expect and predict the most absurd of twists from the simplest premises. 40-some years of televised murder investigations have made every viewer into budding Columbos wherein our own comprehension of the mystery at hand is as much of a factor in the entertainment value of the piece. In that sense, The Little Things is ferociously anti-commercial — an ambling procedural in which the clues seem to lead to obvious conclusions but a rash of outside factors (permits, warrants, the delays inherent to DNA testing in 1990) force the leads to sit and stew in their own misery and trauma. On paper, this is close to a radical narrative decision — a film in which detectives are torn apart not only through what they witness but by the inherent limits of the system in which they choose to exist.
Unfortunately, that only functions as a springboard for the story, not as a story in itself. Though there’s, I think, a certain intelligence to the base of The Little Things, it’s mainly undone by how murky and uninteresting the character development winds up being. Both Washington and Malek give it the ol’ college try (though Malek, in his early scenes, cycles through a veritable cornucopia of worrisome facial tics, presumably in order for the audience to warm up to their trust of his character) but there’s simply not enough there. Their buried trauma, their years of experience, their weariness, their frustration at the system — none of it really comes across. Though I don’t doubt for a second that The Little Things had something very specific in mind at some point in its gestation, the final product is murky and dull — a film that sets everything in place in order to explore psychology and conveniently leaves all of it out.
I have to admit that what Hancock is doing here is extremely difficult, if not absolutely counterintuitive within the framework of what is essentially a down-the-middle Denzel Washington cop movie the likes of which have been seen at least half-a-dozen times before. The Little Things sets itself up as the anti-Bone Collector and proceeds to deliver a film that offers no distinctions between profundity and rote, middle-of-the-road airport-novel banalities. It’s a psychological thriller that, ironically, winds up offering about as much insight into the psychology of its characters as an aforementioned Adam Sandler comedy. It’s a valiant try from Hancock, but in focusing on the little things, he left out quite a few big things. ■
The Little Things opens in theatres (not here obviously) and is available on VOD as of Friday, Jan. 29. For more details about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:
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