A neo-noir crime thriller about a serial killer that terrifies female victims in Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley, The Little Things, writer-director John Lee Hancock’s latest film is of course a taut and psychological thriller, uneven but rewarding , dense and layered that is somewhat engrossing, but ultimately a frustrating experience. If anything, Hancock owes a huge debt to David Fincher and the late Jonathan Demme for their variations in transcending the serial killer movie with such masterpieces as Fincher’s own Se7en and Zodiac, as well as Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs which were the landmark detective thrillers in the 90s that generated many other films during that decade such as Copycat, Fallen, Kiss the Girls, and The Bone Collector among many more. These films also spawned other TV shows over the course of decades as we see the genre still being utilized today in a more modern approach. All around this film plays like a tribute to a bygone era of 90s thriller filmmaking that feels like the script was written in the 90s, and that is totally fine since the 90s was a decade of many movies that became relics.
Though far from being as mesmerizing as Se7en or Zodiac, The Little Things should be commended for its ambitions and for encompassing a dense and layered structure that is going to polarize critics and viewers alike. Stylistically, the film doesn’t have the auteur stamp of Fincher or Demme, but the writing has some sharp moments, and while the film at times feels like a tribute to Fincher, narratively the film should be embraced for avoiding some pedestrian clichés– especially in its conclusion and final reels that could have come off more formulaic and generic. Even though one of the scenes toward the end feels right out of Se7en.
The film also offers some contemplative moments and characterizations that echoes the HBO series True Detective as the detectives in The Little Things also attempt to find meaning and purpose to their investigations. It’s not to say there are serial killer movie tropes to be found because there is, it almost feels like Hancock is attempting to make two films here while not fully surfacing it as transcendent as it could have been. The end result is a watchable, just not fully enthralling detective film that is layered with some bumpy moments that do offer a satisfying and compelling conclusion that will leave you either bewildered or frustrated.
The Little Things chronicles two police officers as they investigate the grisly murders of female victims in 1990, Hancock is quite self-aware in his setting as it’s a throwback to an era where serial-killer films were popular. Joe “Derke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a deputy in a rural desert county somewhere in California. Joe has the sophistication to be a police sergeant or a detective, yet Hancock’s exposition of him is quite underwritten as we know this man carries sorrow and regret from his past that has held him back from furthering his career in the police force. Once he is ordered to travel to L.A. to gather evidence that was found outside his jurisdiction, he builds an unusual partnership with Jim Baxter (Rami Malik), a homicide detective who is in charge of investigating the high profile murders of many prostitutes in the Los Angeles vicinity.
When Joe arrives he often stays in his deputy uniform which makes him appear more like a cadet and a everyday man. Eventually Hancock quickly transforms the character of Joe Deacon and he becomes more hard edged and ruthless once he dresses more formally and like a detective. Washington is one of the most versatile and impressive actors in cinematic history, although his performance here is indeed quite strong, it doesn’t feel as refreshing as it could have because we have seen him in this performance before as he’s played many hard-edged detectives before in numerous other films (Training Day, Inside Man, Out of Time). I wonder if Hancock made him more like an every day man which the earlier section of the film would have done how it would have played out. Regardless, Washington is always first-rate as his presence draws you in once again with The Little Things. Malik is quite convincing here too as Detective Baxter, as he balances ego with obsession, as a determined detective who neglects his family and rationalizes his detective duties that consists of endless waiting holds a purpose in this world–even if it consists of spending an endless amount of time on leads, autopsy reports, forensics, and stakeouts. Derke ends up becoming somewhat of a mentor for Jim, who gives him wisdom how you find true evidence in the little things–hence the title.
Deliberately dense by design, on one level, The Little Things remains a solid entry into the serial killer genre that’s focused on the endless search for the killer that ends up echoing Zodiac as a massive amount of circumstantial evidence points to Albert (Jared Leto), who is far far ordinary, and it almost feels like Leto is channeling a Charles Manson impression with his long hair. His character even has books on Manson, and while Leto has effective moments here as a Machiavellian archetype of the suspected killer that channels the cat-and-mouse elements that were found in Se7en and Zodiac, the character feels very one-dimensional and familiar. Imagine if we started getting serial killer suspects in films were just ordinary, sophisticated, and equally cunning like Matt Dillon’s riveting performance in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built? Throughout the journey Albert deliberately gets under the skin of Joe and Jim as they fall for his mind games. Regardless,, Leto’s performance here is quite strong.
Hancock gives very little insight or any depth to work on with the Albert character, perhaps a stronger rewrite or deeper collaboration with another writer Hancock could have tapped into something more uncanny with the Albert character because the finale indeed unfolds with a dense and potentially cerebral finale. Is Albert influenced by Manson? Does pop culture shape who we are? Is Albert really the killer, or is he playing the part due his fascination with crime? All of these elements dance around the ideas, but are never fully surfaced. Had Hancock delivered this in the ways Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers or Von Trier and even David Lynch did with Wild at Heart, Hancock would have delivered a more meta and fascinating framework.. Instead, The Little Things ends up becoming a pastiche of far more effective serial killer films where it plays obvious odes and borrowed fragments of Fincher’s greatest moments. For instance, the opening desert scene where a woman is being chased by the killer echoes the opening and other scenes in Fincher’s Zodiac, and even one of the scenes in the films third act feels like a rehash of Se7en.
Despite these quibbles, The Little Things is a very thrilling ride, although it has numerous logical and preposterous plot holes. For instance, would a detective truly get into the vehicle with a highly suspected serial killer? The film’s screenplay does offer some effective moments though–the first confrontation between Detective Baxter and Albert is quite a memorable scene that escalates even more dramatic once Joe gets involved. Washington and Malik here are all no-nonsense while Leto is all nonsense as they try to press Albert into the seemingly knowledge of these murders. Washington and Malik are also quite strong together, they seem very much in sync with one another in each of their scenes that keeps the film afloat. Despite their chemistry, most of The Little Things plays out like a homage to Fincher. Perhaps Hancock might think, as the title indicates, just small things that the average moviegoer won’t think about, it’s a film that holds so much potential and is capable of much more. While deeply flawed, that is far from a game changer for the detective genre, The Little Things is still a solid enough mystery yarn that unfolds with intrigue and impressive performances by the trio of Oscar winners that include Washington, Malik, and Leto.