The First Good Movies of 2021
Saint Maud, The Little Things, and why I'm missing the big screen more than usual.
Saint Maud is the kind of movie that used to get banned in several countries and condemned by the Catholic Church, which I mean as a compliment. Rose Glass’ debut feature belongs to the same provocative tradition as The Devils and Paradise: Faith; though it doesn’t entirely live up to some of its genre forebears, the drama/horror hybrid portends great things to come from both Glass and Morfydd Clark.
Clark plays the title character, a devout nurse-turned-private-carer whose newest patient (Jennifer Ehle) has cancer — an affliction that has done little to dampen her sardonic wit. When the former dancer calls Maud “my little savior,” it’s as though our heroine can’t tell whether she should be flattered or offended — she’s a recent convert, which in this case has the effect of intensifying her newfound faith to the point of religious ecstasy. Her job description entails the standard duties of caregiving — administering medication, tidying up, bedside manner — but she’s more concerned with her patient’s soul than she is with her body.
Not that the two aren’t connected: Maud’s religious fervor manifests itself physically, even sexually, so when she attempts to prove her devotion by kneeling on popcorn kernels while praying or walking across the city with pins in her shoes, we can’t be sure if she’s in agony, ecstasy, or both.
It isn’t just her faith that’s new. Vague references to a previous incident, as well as brief flashbacks, suggest that several aspects of Maud’s identity are part of a conscious attempt to reinvent herself. But old habits die hard, and her narrated prayers make it clear that she isn’t yet the pious being she aspires to be: “I daresay you’ll be seeing this one soon,” she says of her patient with a hint of self-righteousness in her voice. To err is human, but to try and practice what you preach the way Maud eventually does is, well, you’ll see.
In my review of Mank, I wrote that the film “never gives the impression of having needed to be made by [David] Fincher as opposed to some replacement-level director of autumnal prestige pictures.” John Lee Hancock, late of The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, is exactly who I had in mind. Given his work on 2016’s underrated The Founder and now The Little Things, I’m beginning to rethink that assessment. Though no Zodiac (to which it’s clearly indebted), this is a genuinely compelling procedural with a gloriously bittersweet ending.
Denzel Washington plays the has-been deputy to Rami Malek’s on-the-rise detective, with Jared Leto as the object of their suspicion (and, at times, obsession); Leto has made a habit of overplaying his hand in recent years, but he’s at his restrained best as the maybe-serial killer mystifying every gumshoe in Los Angeles. The film’s pitch essentially boils down to “come for the trio of Oscar winners, stay for the murder mystery,” and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t deliver on that promise.
When asked how he gets used to all this — the death, the lack of resolution, the smell — Denzel’s haunted cop says that, if you’re lucky, you don’t. Later, while staring at evidence pinned to the wall and imagining a spectral visit from victims whose murders have gone unsolved, he reminds himself that “it’s never over.” The Little Things takes Zodiac’s insight that “there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer” and doubles down on it — a day may come when we tire of watching tortured detectives obsess over the cases that got away, but it is not this day.
“It's the little things that are important,” Denzel says later. “It's the little things that get you caught.” One not-so-little thing that makes this film so compelling is its score, which was composed by 15-time Oscar nominee (and zero-time winner) Thomas Newman, whose work on The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Skyfall, and a dozen other films hasn’t been enough to get him the big one. Now that Roger Deakins finally has a couple trophies on his mantel, can Newman be next?
The Little Things is part of WarnerMedia’s decision to have all their 2021 releases premiere in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, an initiative it’s hard not to be conflicted about — while surely a good thing for audiences in the short term, it makes me worry about the future of actual movie theaters more than anything else that’s happened in the last year. The Little Things might not demand to be projected on a 60-foot wall the way something like Tenet does, but I’ve never seen a movie on a small screen that wouldn’t have looked better on a big one.