Movie Review | ‘The Little Things’: There are no Angels in Los Angeles

—Spoiler-Alert—

Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington). Via Warner Bros.

Meet Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), aka Deke, a middle aged detective who fell from grace to grass in the span of six months because of a peculiar double homicide. He was transferred, got a divorce, is estranged from his two daughters, and has now become a pariah in his previous workplace.

Five years later, Joe Deacon now has cause to return to his old workplace in Los Angeles due to some paperwork. When he arrives, he finds out that there has been a similar homicide to his case five years ago. Joe Deacon was supposed to leave Los Angeles and return to his small county by morning, but now, with Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a young hotshot detective who apparently replaced Joe Deacon in Los Angeles, this case will keep him, and the little things that ruined Joe Deacon five years ago will return to rip them both apart.

Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington). Via Warner Bros.

The Little Things focuses on the fallibility of man, especially men that cannot afford to fall. Men that guard society from the chaos that embroils within it; that, when looked in a certain light, Joe Deacon would be forgiven for thinking detectives to be guardian angels. To Joe Deacon, these men who stand guard against evil are detectives who protect potential victims of violence. These men must not fail. But this is a conundrum because man, in his pristine essence, is a fallen being.

The Little Things attempts to juggle too many knives and while the knives are all in the air, the aesthetic is pleasing, the apparent sense of mastery over situation is appreciated, but when the knives come down, expecting to be caught and either thrown back in the air or calmly put to rest, the juggler fails to catch most of the knives. In fact, some of the knives stab the juggler.

Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Via Warner Bros.

Take Joe Deacon himself, played by the perpetually impeccable Denzel Washington, who has lost his old way of life over an unresolved case from five years ago.  Now that he has returned to Los Angeles, faced his old colleagues, visited his ex-wife, and has forged a team with Jim Baxter , a young, brilliant detective, to finally put this unresolved case to rest and arrest the serial killer, the movie suddenly refuses to see through with this objective.
Taking the latest missing woman who, at the end of the movie, we still do not know what happened to her. And finally, the character that the movie touts as the principal suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who, at the end of the movie, even though he is absolutely incriminating, the movie doesn’t state whether he is the killer or not. 

Plainly put, a murder mystery, crime-thriller drama that doesn’t solve the crime or answer the mystery it opens with. The plot attempts to make a statement on “badness”, “goodness”, and the in-between, the ambiguous, but ends up confounding itself, leaving a pertinent question unanswered, “who is the serial killer?”

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Nonetheless, this was a well-made movie. The threesome of Denzel Washington (Training Day), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) is bound to produce some level of excellence. Dutifully, they carried the plot and Leto’s particularly chilling performance sold the plot for what might have been the perfect setup for a brilliant twist. Unsurprisingly, Jared Leto has now gone on to receive a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the movie.

Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Via Warner Bros.

Jim Baxter and Joe Deacon are the pedagogue/protégé that the movie successfully mirrors. Jim Baxter is simply a younger Joe Deacon. Just as Joe was when he was younger, respected, Jim too is brilliant and respected by many, is a Christian, has great passion for the job, has a wife,  two daughters, and in the end, commits manslaughter on the case. Just before the deed is committed, the cinematography/editing blends in shots of Joe and Jim into one, signifying that they have become the same. Yet, this is another brilliant aspect of the movie that raises more questions when perused. Joe Deacon has not found any true closure on his return to Los Angeles, will this be the case for Jim Baxter as well? Will he also lose his family and all the things Joe Deacon lost years before?

And finally, implying that Albert Sparma is the serial killer is not enough in a movie where the villain is so important to the unravelling of the protagonist. It is also not enough that the penultimate scene shows a new detective giving a team of officers a pep talk on the case. It is the principal conundrum of the movie and it should have been answered explicitly: Who is the serial killer?

The Little Things places too much emphasis on the little things, a number of plot crumbs that lead the viewer to no tangible treasure. It points to religious motifs such as Deacon and Baxter’s versions of Christianity; the picture of the holy spirit sheltering Jesus in Deacon’s hotel room; the cross Deacon fixates on while entering and leaving Los Angeles; and the name of the hotel Deacon stays in Los Angeles, St. Agnes, is the name of the patron saint of chastity, young girls, and rape survivors. But all of these lead up to nothing in the end.

The serial killer has an affinity for prostitutes but this too leads to nothing. Denzel Washington speaks to his wife and colleague about his daughters, tells his wife he should call his daughters but he neither calls them nor help us find out why he is estranged from them. While the movie had generally interesting motifs and plot points, they never burgeon fully because the movie doesn’t nourish them. And the most important thing for a movie of its type, a resolution, was abandoned. 

Rating: 6/10

Side Musings

  • Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto are utterly brilliant actors.
  • All the females in this movie are stereotypical characters; the loving/supporting wife; the supporting female colleague; the ex-wife that might still have a thing for the protagonist; the serial killer’s victims. This makes it more believable that its writer and director, John Lee Hancock, had the idea for the film in the ‘90s.
  • In spite of the plot limitations, the duo protagonists are interesting characters. And the slow burner of Joe Deacon’s backstory until we arrive at the great reveal and discover why it was necessary for him to leave Los Angeles. We realise why Joe Deacon is so sure there are “No Angels” in Los Angeles.

The Little Things is currently streaming on HBO Max and showing in Nigerian cinemas.

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