“The Little Things” – Kern County sits north of greater Los Angeles and east of San Luis Obispo. Strikingly shaped like Montana, it’s over 8,000 square miles – about twice the size of its little sister, Los Angeles County – and it sports wide-open spaces, agriculture and gasoline production, and Bakersfield, its anchor city. Although Kern and Los Angeles Counties are related, they couldn’t be more opposite.
Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) – a casual, matter-of-fact, going-about-his-business assistant lawman – spent much of his career in The City of Angels. For years, he investigated complicated, vicious homicides as a lead detective. His current post is a “retirement” of sorts, but is it forced or by his design? Well, his superior officer sends him to L.A. for a one-day assignment, but through old habits and muscle memory, Deke stays in town via the hypnotic pull of a serial killer on the loose, as four victims have fallen in just two months.
Set in 1990, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s (“The Founder” (2016), “The Highwaymen” (2019)) police drama carries shades of the real-life Richard Ramirez case from the 1980s. Ramirez murdered 14 people – chosen at random – in grizzly fashions. Although this critic hasn’t seen the Netflix documentary series “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” (2021), I’ve been told that watching it will trigger several sleepless nights.
For “The Little Things”, no worries. You should find restful slumber after experiencing this crime story. A hefty glass of warm milk isn’t needed.
Admittedly, the film does open with a creepy, disturbing chase – on a lonely road and then at a gas station – where a faceless villain hunts down an innocent 20-something (Sofia Vassilieva). Later, Deacon and L.A. Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) look over an ugly, bloody crime scene or two, but otherwise, “The Little Things” is a slow and surprisingly tame drama. It’s light on thrills, and instead, it navigates – over a 2-hour 7-minute runtime – as an in-depth character study, rather an intricate puzzle. The movie’s title doesn’t refer to the small details needed to solve a case because Hancock makes any audience-investigator work extremely easy.
For instance, Deacon mentions that roast beef could be a clue in finding their man, and in the very next scene, an ordinary sidewalk “Roast Beef” sign sits, like a flashing Las Vegas billboard, in the frame. Naturally, Deacon and Baxter’s suspect frequents this particular modest sandwich shop. Now, perhaps this dubious individual – who shall be nameless in this review – is not the sick baddie in question, but the script – straight away – seems to release all the air out of its whodunit balloon.
As an alternative, “The Little Things” attempts to fill its spaces with noir atmosphere. Hancock, costume designer Daniel Orlandi, and production designer Michael Corenblith get the period exactly right as clothes, cars, and technology have all the feels of 1990, as the film fits nicely as an “NYPD Blue” west-coast tale. Meanwhile, the movie’s real journeys lie with Deacon’s history and Baxter’s present. Baxter – the police department’s head, with a secure, settled, and lovely family in the suburbs – bids to learn from his weathered, well-traveled elder. He realizes that Deacon’s closet stores a few piles of skeletons, or perhaps just one bulky, shadowy bag of bones, but either way, this sheriff’s deputy earned his well of anxieties.
Deacon buries his memories as deep as his faculties will allow, but his past leaks to the surface through constant reflection and physically slower steps. Think of Anthony Hopkins’ turn in James Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993), as Stevens (Hopkins) – a loyal butler – always swallows his feelings, despite the potential for love (Emma Thompson) standing right in front of him and his employer appeasing the Nazi Party. Deke’s suppression is more contemporary and visceral because ducking under yellow crime tape and examining entry wounds on a nightly basis for 10-plus years is all about his environment rather than an innate character flaw.
“The Little Things” isn’t flawed, but it’s relaxed and cliché. Some – and perhaps most – moviegoers will enjoy the deep analysis of a lonely, semi-broken man’s history, and especially with one of America’s best actors offering his gifts. For others, this particular Los Angeles-Bakersfield-Los Angeles excursion won’t be big enough.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Warner Bros. Pictures