There’s plenty to like about John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things (2021), a dark police procedural with a rock-solid cast and an compelling air of intrigue. Unfortunately, despite a thought-provoking and timely theme, its components don’t quite result in a satisfying film. Set in the early nineties, the film follows a modest sheriff’s deputy in Bakersfield, California named Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington). When Deacon is sent south to Los Angeles to collect evidence for a case, it stirs up the emotions of his former colleagues there; turns out Deacon was a respected homicide detective in LA before his career came apart. Deacon’s appearance on the scene interests his replacement, Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the young hotshot currently investigating an ongoing, high-profile serial murder case. Against everyone’s advice, Jim forges a rapport with Deacon when it appears that Deacon might have insights to offer. Together, they zero in on a promising suspect: the creepy, vaguely sociopathic Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). But Sparma gets into their heads, threatening to send Jim down a dangerous new path, and resurrecting Deacon’s inner demons.
The Little Things possesses the earmarks of good, slow-building neo-noir, nicely constructing mysterious ambience as it follows Deacon back into his old life and gradually uncovers the sins of his past. Washington brings mystique and gravitas to his role, which helps sell the slow boil, as do nuanced supporting performances from Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Natalie Morales, and Terry Kinney, who portray the others working on the case. It’s impossible to describe why The Little Things isn’t entirely satisfying without spoiling the greater plot details; suffice it to say that the film has a genre-subverting mission at its core that, while successfully executed, also feels disappointingly like a bait-and-switch. It’s possible this one will hold up over time for the way it challenges familiar cop movie tropes, but viewers who go in with more conventional genre expectations might find its ultimate resolution dissatisfying, despite its thought-provoking message.