The devil is in the details in The Little Things, a serial killer thriller devoid of any of the (ahem) fleshing out that makes these types of films worth watching. As disgraced former detective Joe Deacon, Denzel Washington continually warns that it’s the “little things” of the title that get criminals caught, but John Lee Hancock’s movie is guilty of the same sin. The writer-director pays almost no attention to the elements that could have elevated the film into something worth experiencing, instead of the resulting two-plus hours of pointless gloom.
Hancock is better known for making the types of blandly pleasant movies that I feel comfortable recommending to my meat-and-potatoes-loving parents: 2002’s The Rookie, 2009’s The Blind Side, and 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. The Little Things is something grimmer, despite sharing its name with the feel-good website. With its blood splatters and nude murder victims, this film has more in common with the gnarlier crime thrillers of the ‘90s than the filmmaker’s past work. It wants to play in the same space as 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, 1995’s Seven, and even lesser titles like 1999’s Washington vehicle The Bone Collector.
These comparisons make sense though: the film was written in the early ‘90s, before Hancock began working as a director. While it took decades to get made, The Little Things is still set in October 1990, but there’s little evidence of the era, beyond the presence of now-vintage cars and the lack of DNA evidence and cell phones. Composer Thomas Newman seems to have missed the memo too. The score sounds overly contemporary for the setting, and not in an interesting way. Winking ‘60s needle drops — Peggy March’s ”I Will Follow Him” plays while Deacon trails a suspect, Aaron’s Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” during a moment of truth — are better suited to a film with less of an otherwise dark tone.
After a briefly harrowing beginning that teases its villain, Hancock’s screenplay introduces us to Washington’s Deacon, a small-town cop who was meant for more than investigating the vandalism and other misdemeanors in Bakersfield, California. A pointless errand sends him back to Los Angeles, where he was effective on the LAPD, but most of his former coworkers now shun him for unknown reasons. While in L.A., he is drawn into a case that reminds Deacon of one that still haunts him from his time in the city. This time, a serial killer is leaving behind grisly crime scenes with female victims, echoing Deacon’s last case. After some initial friction, rising star detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) asks Deacon for his insight into the so-far-fruitless investigation. The unlikely pair try to solve the murders before the killer strikes again … or Deacon’s own cracks reopen.
With a trio of Oscar winners leading the cast — Washington, Malek, and Jared Leto as the squirm-inducing suspect Sparma — The Little Things should at least be watchable, despite its unimpressive screenplay and direction. However, only Washington works here, imbuing the broken Deacon with more character than the script likely did. Malek is miscast as the straight-laced cop; he is the most boring person here, which is not what you expect of the Mr. Robot actor. Leto certainly isn’t boring as the crime buff under suspicion for the murders, but everything he does feels like an effort. He isn’t helped by the film’s heavy-handed characterization; if you miss Helter Skelter’s signature spine on Sparma’s bookshelf, the true-crime classic shows up again later. His long, stringy haircut — or lack thereof — is what one expects of a Charles Manson devotee.
The Little Things alternates between hammering everything in, not trusting the audience to understand its intentions, and skipping over the connective tissue that would answer their questions. Whether supporting moments weren’t in the script or were left on the cutting room floor, it feels like a lot is missing here beyond even the period details, despite the 127-minute running time.
While The Little Things never feels like a film set in 1990, its attitude toward gender is a throwback. The only real action done by the sole female cop with lines (Natalie Morales) is to screw up the case. As a coroner, actress Michael Hyatt gets a bit more to do, but the script doesn’t develop her character. Instead, the most prominent women in the film are victims, whose only identifying features are the violence done to them and their naked bodies. With their female protagonists, similar ’90s films like The Silence of the Lambs and The Bone Collector appeared more progressive than The Little Things, produced decades later. This movie has a message about how the endless violence wears on cops, but it only uses women as tools to tell that story.
The Little Things slumps to its conclusion, with Washington doing his best to drag the film across the finish line all by himself. Its only success is cementing his status as one of the greatest living actors, here working with material that doesn’t work as hard as he does.
“The Little Things” opens in theaters and on HBO Max Friday.