What to Watch Verdict
Denzel Washington is mesmerizing as a cop who's addicted to solving crimes, but John Lee Hancock struggles to transform a '90s-era thriller into a modern character study.
▪️Washington's ability to inject meaning into the smallest looks or gesture elevates every scene in which he appears.
▪️Leto goes full Manson as an unhinged suspect you want to see brought to justice whether or not he's guilty.
▪️Hancock doesn't successfully combine '90s era thrills and more complex, morally ambiguous storytelling details.
▪️After a hypnotic first half, improbable character choices make the film's end start to unravel.
The Little Things serves as an important reminder that in Hollywood, there are only a few things that do not change — but one of them is Denzel Washington’s commanding screen presence. The rest that do, including serial killer stories and portrayals of police and their investigations, John Lee Hancock’s film takes confidently in stride, updating and refining formulas to suit the needs of a more nuanced if not quite as readily-gratifying era of filmmaking. The result is a film that stands gingerly on the shoulders of its giant predecessors, in particular both of David Fincher’s contributions to the serial killer genre, Seven and Zodiac, as it attempts to forge a path that isn’t focused enough to excuse the fact that it isn’t new. Still, committed performances by Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto frequently elevate its familiar elements to something engrossing.
Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former homicide detective who relocated from Los Angeles to the comparatively sleepier Kern County, where he works as a Deputy Sherriff. While on a courier run to retrieve evidence for a pending case, he encounters Jimmy Baxter (Malek), an ambitious LAPD detective assigned to investigate a series of murders of young women. Deke’s old instincts kick in after Jimmy invites him to visit the latest crime scene, offering Jimmy suggestions and insights before deciding to unofficially pursue the case himself. But when circumstantial evidence leads them to the doorstep of Albert Sparma (Leto), a creepy suspect whose cat-and-mouse mind games convince them he is the perpetrator, Deke and Jimmy become determined to find the evidence linking him to the heinous series of crimes — whether or not he actually committed them.
John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, Saving Mr. Banks) first wrote the screenplay for The Little Things in the early 1990s for Steven Spielberg before deciding to direct it for himself, and there are elements from the heyday of serial killer movies, catapulted into critical and commercial favor with Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and Seven in 1995, that his story somewhat unashamedly borrows — particularly the latter’s juxtaposition of an older, more measured cop and a younger, hungrier one ready to cut corners if needed to get the job done. The film is even set in 1990, eliminating the shortcuts of contemporary forensic technology, much less cell phones. But where Hancock’s story gains resonance by arriving some three decades later is in its appropriate ambivalence about police, and in particular, a more complex view of those shortcuts and logical leaps that violate due process even if they lead to convictions.
Deke’s disgraced professional history — including his exile to Kern County, where the biggest crime to investigate is who broke the “G” light bulbs on the sign at a Black Angus Steakhouse — is the direct result of belief overpowering fact; as sharp as his instincts are, he’s far from a perfect cop. The question becomes whether or not history will repeat itself again: in his hunger to solve a case, and to clear the images of murdered woman from his conscience, is he willing to violate the oath of his badge — and more pivotally, to work the evidence rather than a feeling or hunch? By the time he meets Jimmy, his successor is already moving towards the same obsessive path, and it takes only a few lucky discoveries (and some trampled suspect rights) to push him to a point of no return. Where in Fincher’s first serial killer film, the ends justified the means to self-destructive ends, in his second, Zodiac, pursuing an unknowable truth becomes all-consuming, and Hancock weaves these two themes together in a way that intentionally robs his film of the more conventional satisfaction of seeing a perpetrator apprehended or killed by turning the personal meaning of these two cops’ investigation back on them rather than manifested as an external pursuit of justice.
This is familiar territory for Washington, but he is utterly mesmerizing as Deke, a character like many he’s played before possessing absolute conviction in himself and his ideals, even if they’re wrong. He dominates the first half of the film and makes it easy to understand why the younger detective would not only defer to his expertise but adopt some of his tactics. Moreover, Washington truly conveys the cost of his painstaking professional commitment to the audience even as he makes it so alluring to Malek’s Jimmy; it’s not even adequate to call the actor’s presence star wattage — it’s an absolute command of the screen. Malek, meanwhile, is gifted as the family man who risks his own sense of security and normalcy to pursue a potential monster, but appropriately gets overshadowed by the senior officer and mentor that he desperately wants to impress, if not become.
Leto’s unblinking creepiness as Sparma fuels the audience’s sympathies to see Deke and Jimmy bring his character to justice, even as the movie reminds us that his culpability remains perhaps disappointingly unproven. But ultimately as Deke’s obsession passes to Jimmy and the movie narrows its focus to finding the criminal, it also loses its grasp on what was working — the “little things” of the investigative process — and quite frankly, Hancock starts making choices as a storyteller whose momentum and tension he can’t quite control or maintain as a director. And so, the film eventually settles on some deeply tragic truths about truth and obsession that undercut the events that led to them, a tradeoff that doesn’t feel worthwhile when Washington’s character’s story shifts further to the background. Ultimately, The Little Things has more to say than many serial killer movies about the conventions of its genre and the cultural shifts that have taken place about police stories in general, but even with Washington authoritatively putting all of the pieces together, it never quite adds up to enough.
The Little Things will be available to stream on HBO Max January 29, 2021.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.