John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things

It’s fascinating how human beings crave resolution, airtight narratives, explanation and a clear roadmap of where they’re going at all times, characteristics that that are evident in our creation and consumption of art. Every time a narrative comes along that eerily ducks the expectations of a clean, neatly wrapped and satisfying ending the resulting reaction can be hostile and downright explosive, and some of the reactions to John Lee Hancock’s unconventional cops vs killer thriller The Little Things have been just that. This is a script that was written in the 90’s I’m told, and shelved until it was dusted off for production this year, so naturally we have a measured, paced, atmospheric and story based film that feels not necessarily dated but just a little bit.. “untethered from time’ in a sense, and the effect is mesmerizing. Denzel plays Joe Deacon, a once hotshot homicide detective who lost it all over an obsessive hunt for a serial killer that resulted in divorce, a heart attack and being relegated to county sheriff somewhere far outside LA. When he returns for a simple day trip to evidence swap with colleagues, he swiftly gets pulled into the mystery of another killer operating near the city and teams up with the eager rookie detective (Rami Malek) assigned to the case, much to the concern and unimpressed huff of his former lieutenant (Terry Kinney). Is this the same killer who once drove him to the absolute edge? Is this case related in any way to the tangled web of mysteries from Joe’s past? Who is the impossibly creepy loner (Jared Leto) who taunts them both with very real details from the murders yet always seems to be one step beyond any suspicion or proof of involvement? This is a tantalizing, deliberately opaque jigsaw puzzle with quite a few pieces missing, hidden or otherwise unaccounted for, and the result can be maddening for some, mildly frustrating for others or an outright dealbreaker for those who simply can’t reconcile a story left unfinished. One has to invest laser focused attentiveness and studious detection skills to arrive at the same conclusions alongside our leads and have any idea what just happened, and this is even before the big reveals, or lack thereof. It evokes a genuine sense of mystery and I honestly wish more big Hollywood films had the nerve to pull narrative stunts like this, because it would effectively ween viewers off of the oversimplification, excessive exposition and ravenous need to make sense of everything that permeates North American filmgoing culture. Denzel is terrific here, letting the intensity and introspective obsessiveness his detective no doubt once had simmer on a dim low burn that comes with years of searching for answers to no avail. Malek does his wife eyed nosferatu shtick again, I’ve never been able to really connect with him as an actor but there’s no denying that he has presence, the exact essence and intention of which still eludes me. Leto is undoubtedly spooky as all hell but perhaps falls victim a tad to mannerism and histrionic flexing, yet still does a fine job in a difficult role to pull off. Director Hancock uses some absolutely sensational camera movements to create tension and atmosphere, as we see a lone girl jogging down an unlit side street, an ominous black car slinking in after her and then a slow time-lapse panning shot up over the LA horizon as the sun rises, just purely inspired creativity there. Thomas Newman does excellent music work as always, his score here is a melodic, fretful jangle of electronic rhythms and nocturnal passages that feels like the highway, the sky just before dawn, unanswered questions and decades of dark rumination wrapped up in one transfixing musical chorus. This film won’t be for everyone but I hope it at least imparts the harsh reality that not all stories are neatly wrapped packages of comforting resolution and beat-by-beat bullet points of what you can always expect to find in a serial killer thriller, because how boring would that be, to always and forever be able to predict narrative patterns and never once be surprised, scared or left in the dark? This story isn’t afraid to go to those dark intangible places, and more importantly, isn’t afraid to not return from them. Great film.

-Nate Hill


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