The template for John Lee Hancock's The Little Things is obvious. Hoping to emulate David Fincher's Seven, this would-be thriller can't escape that classic's shadow, try as it might to cut its own path. Effectively atmospheric, capably directed and sporting a cast featuring three Oscar-winners, all the pieces seem to be in place to deliver an effective urban thriller. Unfortunately, Hancock's script is too clever by half, leading to needlessly complicated sequences that slow down an already deliberately paced film that never achieves a sense of narrative momentum.
Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is living a quiet life in a small California community as a police officer. However, this is upset when he's asked to go to Los Angeles to pick up a key piece of evidence for a local trial, an event that sets off a chain of events that leads him to delve into things he thought he'd put behind him. He crosses paths with Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a hot-shot detective who's been tasked with tracking down a serial killer that's terrorizing the City of Angels. Running up against one dead end after another, he acts on a colleague's suggestion and reluctantly asks for Deacon's help. Seems the reserved officer has a past with the Los Angeles Police Department, one that's made him persona non grata with Captain Farris (Terry Kinney), despite his obvious talent. Nonetheless, Deacon agrees to work with Baxter on the side and before you know it, he's uncovered a suspect in the person of appliance repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto).
Hancock holds his cards close to the vest as his script very, very slowly reveals key events from Deacon's past, explaining why he exiled himself as well as the reason behind his interest in Baxter's case. This approach keeps the viewer on the hook as each revelation proves to be more intriguing than the last. The logic behind Deacon's withdrawn nature and rekindled obsession is narratively sound and in Washington's hands, he becomes a genuinely tragic figure we can't help but empathize with.
Baxter's backstory isn't as detailed, his character drawn in broad strokes. While it would be unfair to say he's a stereotype, there really isn't anything distinctive about him. He's a young cop, has a nice family, is eager to advance in his chosen career and is primed for a fall. Nonetheless, Malek brings his distinct style to the role, giving us a slightly coiled man with far more going on beneath the surface than he'd care to reveal. As for Leto, he's given very little to work with, his character purposely vague to lend a mystery as to his past and intentions. The actor brings his trademark brand of crazy to the part and it's to his credit that we don't dismiss Sparma out of hand but recognize him as a live wire and a genuine threat.
As for the ending...well, if nihilism is your bag. then this will be right in your wheelhouse. Though you'll likely have to pause and rewind key events in your mind to reevaluate them in light of the final revelation, once you realize just what Hancock is up to, you can't help but give him a tip of the cap. However, it's the pacing that ultimately undoes this effort. Granted, your mileage may vary, depending on the amount of patience you bring to this exercise, but I can't help but think that a more brisk, headlong rush through the story would have insured The Little Things had the devastating effect the director was striving for.