The Little Things

The Little Things ★★★½

Here's a synopsis of John Lee Hancock's directorial career:

'The Alamo'
'The Blind Side'
'Saving Mr. Banks'
'The Founder'
'The Highwaymen'

Not the most dynamic, outstanding or idiosyncratic resume. But also, not the worst either. Whenever I sit down to watch a John Lee Hancock movie, I always get the feeling that I'm in safe storytelling hands. And that's not nothing. Hancock seems to have assumed the mantle once held by the likes of John Badham or Roger Donaldson, those solid, reliable journeyman artisans who never feature on the lists of the world's greatest, but somehow quietly build up a body of work that holds up like well-crafted furniture. And why not? The corpus of cinema was built on the backs of people like Donaldson or Hancock as much as it was on the likes of Kubrick or Scorsese, those dependable pros who churn out unpretentious, never less than watchable programmers that don't do much more than keep you entertained for a couple of hours before vacating your life and leaving it undisturbed. And lo, with 'The Little Things', Hancock has delivered another entry to his roster of respectability.

'The Little Things' doesn't do anything particularly distinctive within the confines of the serial-killer creep genre, but what it does, it does with due professionalism and no little craft. The early-90's setting, for one, is a cute metatextual tip of the hat to that period's boom in psychopath cinema ('Misery', 'The Silence of the Lambs', 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle', 'Cape Fear' etc.), and it reminds us that thrillers worked so much better back in the day when cell phones couldn't make whole elements of the plot redundant or provide convenient narrative shortcuts (there's at least two occasions here when a cell phone would have come in very handy, but their absence makes the characters and filmmakers actually WORK for their story). Any movie endowed with a Thomas Newman score is worth your time, and this one in particular is hauntingly dissonant. And the night-time Los Angeles digital textures conjured by Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzmann here speak to filmmakers who do at least know their Michael Mann. And Hancock is savvy enough to know to let a little of Jared Leto go a long way. Like Denis Villenuve in 'Blade Runner 2049', he knows that this very particular actor is best used in short bursts of wilful eccentricity, and that too much of it can unbalance the drama and tip it into kitsch.

In truth, 'The Little Things' never really tops its terrific opening stalking sequence, a mini-movie marvel of suspense worthy of inclusion in Fincher's 'Zodiac' (if there's anything scarier than realising that the other car on that lonely country road is pursuing you, it's when that car stops for no apparent reason). Some of the religious symbolism (visions of women wearing shrouds, crosses on a hill, the Denzel Washington character is named 'Deacon') may strike some as unnecessarily high-handed. And there's a last-act narrative pivot that purposely pushes the A-plot into the background to dabble with notions of the burden of guilt and the corrosive effect of the cyclical nature of institutional ass-covering. And your mileage may vary on whether this leaves the resolution of the A-plot tantalisingly ambiguous or desperately short-changed.

Nothing that will trouble the Academy, what we have here is nothing more and nothing less than A Good Story Told Well. Guess we'll just have to settle for that.

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