by Rob DiCristino
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. 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.