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Non-Review Review: The Little Things

The Little Things was reportedly written by John Lee Hancock in the mid-nineties, and it shows.

The film is largely set against the backdrop of October 1990. There frequent reminders that this is effectively a period piece. During the opening sequence, one potential serial killer victim sings along with Roam from the B-52s on her car stereo. Another victim has a pink flyer for No Doubt pinned up on her fridge and a poster for The Lost Boys hanging in her living area. There are repeated references to how Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker”, still lingers in the living memory of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A new release window.

However, The Little Things feels like a period piece in some more fundamental ways. Most obviously, there’s the fact that The Little Things exists as a star vehicle, its cast including Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jared Leto, along with Oscar nominee Rami Malek. The film is not based on any existing intellectual property, even if it is highly derivative in other ways. More than that, it harks back to the serial killer boom of mid-nineties cinema, when big studio films were dominated by procedural thrillers and forensic meditation.

The Little Things is neither an exemplar nor a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a straightforward reminder of its tropes and conventions seemingly cobbled together to construct something close to the statistical mean. The common refrain with a film like The Little Things is to suggest that this is the kind of film that they don’t make any more. The more worrying thought is that The Little Things seems to illustrate why.

The Little Things is less a cohesive and engaging movie in its own right and more an environmentally friendly recycling and repackaging of the genre. At its core, The Little Things is collection of familiar serial killer movie clichés assembled in the most predictable manner possible, with a plot that tends to follow the path of least resistance. There are very few surprises, with Hancock’s script running through a checklist of familiar elements.

Denzel Washington plays Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. Deacon was seemingly chased out of Los Angeles following his work on a serial killer case. “The guy worked a case so hard that he got a suspension, a divorce and a triple bypass – all in six months,” explains a former colleague. “Complete meltdown. He’s a rush hour train wreck.” Naturally, despite failing to crack the case, Deacon has refused to let it go. He is the kind of haunted detective who literally sees ghosts and talks to dead bodies.

He’s scene it all.

On a routine errand to Los Angeles, Deacons crosses paths with hotshot young detective Jimmy Baxter, played by Rami Malek. Baxter is everything that Deacon isn’t. He is together. He is collected. He has managed to find a balance between his personal life and the demands of his job. Naturally, Baxter and Deacon find themselves initially at odds before a grudging partnership turns into something closer to a common understanding as both men realise that the case Baxter is investigating might be related to the one that seemed to get away from Deacon years earlier.

There are relatively few surprises in The Little Things. At one point in the film, a suspected serial killer unironically warns Baxter, “You know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could have been friends.” There is no hint of self-awareness there, no insight or introspection. It often feels like Hancock fed a bunch of already derivative nineties serial killer films into a blender and then served up the result.

Yellow tape getting in the way.

Hancock’s direction doesn’t help. While his script pitches itself at the level of something close to the American remake of The Vanishing or Kiss the Girls, Hancock has clearly evolved as a director. There are several sequences in The Little Things that seem to draw directly from the work of David Fincher. It’s hard not to watch Deacon sitting awake in a sleazy hotel without thinking of the introduction to Sommerset in se7en, or to see overhead shots of a suspect’s car on the Los Angeles freeway (or shots of it cruising the desert) without evoking Zodiac.

Fincher’s serial killer films are among the genre’s gold standard, right up there with Silence of the Lambs. However, these attempts at imitation only serve to emphasise the gulf that exists between both the material that the two directors are working with, and the directors themselves. This is not necessarily damning criticism of Hancock. After all, few directors compare favourably to Fincher. Nevertheless, there are moments when The Little Things threatens to bite off more than it can chew.

Cornering the market.

That said, The Little Things is also throwback in more flattering ways. At its most basic level, The Little Things serves as a reminder of the sort of star-driven thrillers that don’t really exist any more. After all, The Little Things marks Denzel Washington’s first lead role since The Equaliser 2 back in 2018. While Oscar-nominated work in films like Roman J. Israel, Esq. and blockbuster success in The Magnificent Seven make it hard to argue that Washington is too far past his prime, it still feels like it has been a long time since the actor has anchored a project like this.

The Little Things benefits from a central performance from Denzel Washington. After all, Washington has considerable experience within this subgenre. Although not necessarily career highlights, Washington has a track record for elevating similar schlocky thrillers like The Bone Collector or Fallen, even if Virtuosity seems to serve as a limit case. The Little Things is the kind of movie that Washington could carry in his sleep, but doesn’t really get the chance to any longer. It’s hard revelatory, but Washington demonstrates that his star power still registers.

One Gun.

That said, the ease with which Washington carries the film reveals some other problems. Rami Malek is appreciably less comfortable within the familiar genre framework than his co-star, and not in a way that necessarily helps the film. Although one of the most promising young performers of his generation, Malek doesn’t have the easy charm of nineties stars. Malek doesn’t click with Washington in the same way that Brad Pitt clicked with Morgan Freeman in se7en, or even that Angelina Jolie clicked with Denzel Washington in The Bone Collectory.

To give The Little Things a bit more credit, the movie does have the advantage of a genuinely clever and compelling third act. In its last half-hour, The Little Things finds something relatively novel to say about the tropes and conventions of the serial killer genre within a relatively conventional framework. The conclusion offers a decidedly pointed riff on the familiar underlying clichés that inform so many serial killer stories. More to the point, that third act is the only part of the film that actually feels like it belongs more to the current moment than it does to the nineties.

The Little Things is the kind of film they don’t really make any more, and perhaps with good reason. There is a reason that the serial killer narrative appears to have migrated to different media: true crime podcasts like Serial, television shows like True Detective, and even documentaries like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. These formats allow for more than just replaying clichés and tropes, making room for character and thematic development. Even without the nineties period setting, The Little Things would feel like a film out of time.

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