Friday, January 29, 2021


 by Rob DiCristino

A five out of Se7en, at best.

What makes a great serial killer film? What separates Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs from every hour-long CBS crime procedural? Excessive gore? Not really, though the Lecter-verse certainly found its niche creating obscene works of blood-stained art by the time Bryan Fuller’s show rolled around. Is it a killer with a memorable gimmick? I don’t think so. Dramatics aside, most of it comes down to “Someone gets stabbed.” No, the general consensus seems to be that serial killing carries a seductive kind of pathological intrigue; we’re fascinated by those with the urge to kill. Indulging in their darkness allows us to explore our own without, you know, murdering people. Fascinated as we are by the suspects, we’re even more enamored by the detectives who chase them, the people who make that darkness their life’s work. What must it take to lean that far into the shadows and still be able to see the light? How can a person think like a killer without becoming one? The search for that answer usually makes for some compelling drama.
Writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blindside, Saving Mr. Banks) draws on these familiar tropes for The Little Things. And while he most certainly understands how to craft a thriller that blends the landmark genre style of the early ‘90s (when the film is set) with the backlit, Fincher-esque aesthetic that defines modern entries, nothing about The Little Things feels distinctive enough to make it more than an echo of those classics. Denzel Washington — no stranger to the genre — stars as Joe Deacon, an emotionally-tortured former LA homicide detective whose tendency to Take Things Too Far cost him his job, his marriage, and his health. Long-banished to rural California, he returns to his old turf to help up-and-coming hot-shot Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) chase a serial killer whose MO recalls a long-dormant case from his past. Though the higher-ups (Chris Bauer and Terry Kinney) warn Baxter that listening to Deacon is career suicide, the younger man soon learns that they share the same addiction to justice.

There’s a real elegance to The Little Things that makes it an engaging watch in the moment. Cinematographer John Schwartzman crafts a beautiful visual palette that gives us that sweaty Los Angeles noir look without washing out all the color or going full Michael Mann gloss. Denzel Washington is mostly reserved and understated as Joe Deacon, resisting the bombast of his most famous roles in favor of restless silence — Deacon wants to be in charge, wants to save the day, wants to run in face-first. Experience, however, has shown him the collateral damage that comes with that behavior. Instead, he spends significant time stalking in the shadows as Malek’s Baxter takes center stage. Malek’s distinctive features make him a hard sell as a baby-faced upstart, but the actor does his level best to mold Baxter’s arc with the limited runway Hancock’s screenplay provides. He’s essentially Se7en’s David Mills (Brad Pitt), a greenhorn college boy with a beautiful family who becomes seduced by the nightmare of his work.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I haven’t yet mentioned Jared Leto, an actor who cannot help but make choices that, for good or ill, often set the tempo for the film around him. Here, he’s the greasy Albert Sparma, an appliance repair man with a penchant for true crime. Deacon pegs him for the killer early on, but Sparma is genre savvy enough to know the bureaucratic limitations of the detectives’ authority. He doesn’t deny his role in the crimes, nor does he confess to any one in particular. He messes with them. He tests their composure. He challenges their commitment to their craft. We’re back in Se7en territory, with Leto’s mannequin creepiness recalling Kevin Spacey’s John Doe. Unlike that film, however, we’re never given true insight into Sparma’s world. He simply exists as a tool by which Deacon and Baxter can spiral into obsession. He’s proof of the futility of their enterprise, a symptom without a real cure. Leto tries to pull the film into his orbit, but Sparma is not consequential enough to carry the necessary weight.
So try as it might for prestige, The Little Things is destined to fit right in on a DVD four-pack of Denzel Washinton thrillers. There’s nothing here you can’t get (better) with any of the other films mentioned above, nor is there enough of the pathos that premium television efforts like True Detective or Mindhunter deliver in spades. Are those comparisons unfair to The Little Things, a screenplay that has apparently been in development since 1993? Maybe, but it’s hard not to make them when they’re so clearly invited. The trick is to do them better, right? Writers should feel free to make their screen detectives haunted and preoccupied with their trauma, but said trauma should translate into interesting twists and turns in their behavior. It should accent the drama and even create a bit of moral ambiguity. The Little Things runs out of gas too early for any of that. We see the last act coming a mile away, and it still feels somewhat unmotivated and not entirely fleshed-out. It’ll leave you hungry for a better fare, so skip a step and watch Zodiac instead.


  1. Jared Leto: "If I play a serial killer in a movie, nobody will suspect I murder women in real life!"

    you're not that sly jared leto

    1. I am interested to see this, but I gave up Leto as my New Years resolution.

  2. Rob, you are far too nice on this movie.

    I wish I could spoil the ending of this movie, so I could rant about it, but I actually found it to be quite offensive. The ending, and the way it's played (particularly the music) is so wildly tone deaf I almost couldn't believe it. Not to mention that it's very long and very tedious. Also, what is Rami Malek doing? I haven't seen a ton of his stuff, but he's giving us Zoolander Magnum face the whole movie. That can't be natural, can it?

    Anyway, there is a bit of unintentional comedy in this that I very much enjoyed. Jared Leto's character wears his work uniform at all times, even though he's almost never working. Watching TV at midnight? Work shirt. Hanging out at a strip club for 12 straight hours? Work shirt. It's like they thought we wouldn't recognize creepy Jared Leto in different clothes.

  3. Hahaha totally. This movie fucking sucked