Note: This review was one I originally wrote for Mystery and Suspense Magazine a few weeks ago and now I’m just putting it here to pass it along to anyone else interested.
The archetypes of the cop thriller genre have become something people of all ages recognize within a second — the looming brooding from both sides of the law, the guilt and obsession, the trite hard-boiled jargon, like “you know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could have been friends.” Such attributes and phrases are written and delivered without a hint of irony in The Little Things, a serial killer thriller so soaked in the clichés of the genre that it can at times play like an unintentional spoof without the jokes. The film is set in 1990, the same year it was written, and if it didn’t derive some of its aesthetic cues from a certain filmmaker (*cough* David Fincher *cough, cough*), one might assume that everyone involved with it had just recently emerged from being frozen in an iceberg, blissfully unaware of the last thirty years of very similar genre fare.
From the get-go, you’ll likely know it all like the back of your hand. A killer roams the streets of L.A., preying on young women. And as the investigation is hitting full-steam, here enters the gruffer, veteran manhunter: Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), who’s long removed from his prime working for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, as he’s now working as a patrol deputy in a small town hours away. He’s clearly haunted from his past work, as he talks to corpses on the table and sees ghosts of past victims he couldn’t save. Yet when he’s brought back to town for a small evidence pickup, it sees his relic self pulled back into the big leagues once again, chasing another killer. And it doesn’t take too long before he’s sitting in a seedy motel, muttering to himself in the dark, with a flashlight, looking up at a cork board pinned with evidence and clues.
All of this isn’t new territory for the movie star, Washington grazed this field of pulp throughout the ‘90s; from The Bone Collector, to Fallen, to Virtuosity. But now, as he’s pushing seventy, Washington fits the profile of the old pro who’s resisting retirement; he’s yet to mask his age and it makes him a solid fit for the role. And, of course, he needs a young hotshot to team up with. Enter fast-rising sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who’s quickly warned by his superior of how Deke’s ways flirt with lies and maybe madness. Malek is far from a natural choice for a role of this nature; his eccentricities don’t exactly line up with being the straight-laced foil his character clearly is. Yet, no matter how mixed in the role he can be, he’s one of the few presences that pull The Little Things out from its non-stop recalling of the dozens of predecessors before it. Writer-director John Lee Hancock delivers a script that’s a mix of enjoyable platitudes and goofy attempts at heavy pondifiction — the endlessly pointing out of a biblical dimension lands with a thud every single time.
Hancock isn’t exactly a filmmaker known to stomp these grounds of seedy grit; his filmography is heavy with lackluster mawkishness (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks). So at least he knew to attempt to steal from the best. The Little Things could easily be described as clear imposter work striving for David Fincher. Yet Hancock isn’t even half the craftsman as Fincher; his grubby apartments and underpasses shine with a clear-cut commerciality, like the far weaker reproduction that’s so clean and undemanding that it lacks the tense, alluringly deliberate control that Fincher constantly delivers. It probably doesn’t help either that this movie is often butcherously edited, with numerous scenes that are chopped up to the point of having little to no rhythm at all.
Seven unmistakably looms over The Little Things as the movie progresses into cat-and-mouse territory with the introduction of a prime suspect played with a maximum showboating creep energy by Jared Leto. His skin pale, his hair long and greasy, his eyes deeply sunken into the cavity of his skull, Leto evokes Charles Manson long before Helter Skelter pops up on a bookshelf. It’s an admirably unsubtle performance that actually might be the film’s most interesting element. Yet no matter how guilty he may look, the film soon revolves around the certainty of our detectives, and if they can be trusted. Is this guy really the culprit or just some wackjob who’s fascinated with true-crime? A film more self-aware might, from here, start to play with the conventions, yet The Little Things instead keeps the sincerity going and slavishly adheres. That is until Hancock embraces some semblance of ambiguity in the film’s more downbeat final stretch, which actually contains some bits of subversion. It’s there where the mystery surrounding Deke’s troubled past is revealed, and it’s pretty grim as it speaks to the dark side of the thin blue line. Yet even that might already be a shopworn truth. Lacking the details it wants to ascribe to, The Little Things feels frozen in time with its derivativeness, ultimately lost in being a cookie-cutter facsimile of the great films it mimics.
The Little Things is available to stream on HBO Max