Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
The Little Things comes to us from John Lee Hancock, the same writer/director who previously made The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. This should give you a good idea about the level of quality to expect: An Oscar-bait drama that’s pretty and well-acted, but ultimately hollow. Also, if such lighter fare is what Hancock is comfortable with, no wonder this bloody neo-noir came up short.
Our stage is set in Los Angeles, circa 1990. There’s a serial killer on the loose, and the LA police still doesn’t have any clues or suspects after two months and four victims (that we know of). The investigation is being led by Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) an ambitious hotshot police detective.
Our protagonist is Joe “Deke” Deacon, played by Denzel Washington. He used to have Baxter’s job, until a case went bad and ruined his life about five years back. Deke quit the force and moved out to the sticks, working as a sheriff’s deputy up in Kern County.
I won’t go into details about how Deke finds himself back in LA. It’s a long and contrived reason, and the filmmakers don’t even bother pretending that it matters. The bottom line is, Deke goes back to LA and finds himself embroiled in the serial killer case.
Thus Deke and Baxter take alternate paths of investigation, with Baxter using all legitimate tools by the book while Deke goes off the rails and resorts to legally grey methods. Baxter is out for career advancement while Deke wants some sense of closure after the way his LA career ended. One’s a young man with energy and some shred of human decency left in him, while the other’s an old man with hard-won experience that’s made him an excellent detective even as it’s left him dead inside.
And then we have Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto. I know there will be a lot of filmgoers out there who won’t see this movie because of Leto, and trust me, I would love to see him cancelled. The man is a cancer and I don’t like giving him any more attention than necessary. That said, at least the character is a hate sink by design and the movie hardly suffers with the knowledge that this particular cast member is an awful human being. (see also: Kevin Spacey in Se7en)
Anyway, Albert is a potential suspect in the mass stabbings. He’s also a true crime fanatic who obsessively studies real-life murders, and he’s clearly acting out his fantasies to some degree. Whether that extends to actually killing people, or merely to teasing the police, that’s hard to say. Either way, he’s absolutely an asshole.
To be clear, of course the cast is amazing. Denzel Washington is a legend, Rami Malek is a phenomenal talent, and Jared Leto — say what you will about him — can play a compelling monster. What’s more, they’re surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, from seasoned veterans like Chris Bauer, Natalie Morales, and Michael Hyatt, to wonderful up-and-comers like Maya Kazan and Sofia Vassilieva.
The problem is not with the cast. The problem is with the script.
Hancock first wrote this script in 1993, and a long list of directors passed on it before Hancock finally decided to film it himself. If the film had come out in the early-to-mid ’90s as intended, it likely would’ve been dismissed as a thinly-veiled knockoff of Silence of the Lambs or Se7en or other such hits of the era. But in 2021, it comes off as threadbare and tired.
At its heart and core, this is a film all about the psychological toll that’s taken on those who devote their lives to studying and fighting evil. Deke spent so many years chasing down so many bloodthirsty maniacs that it completely broke him, and now he’s watching Baxter go unwittingly down the same path. And though the movie doesn’t overtly comment on this, it’s almost certain that Albert was warped to some extreme by following and studying real-life killers to an obsessive degree.
Trouble is, this movie was made in 2021, after a year of protests against police brutality, in response to over 160 racially motivated police murders in the first eight months of 2020. In fact, this screenplay would’ve been written just before the LA Police Riots of 1992, when the city (the city this movie is set in, remember!) tore itself apart after the LAPD viciously attacked Rodney King.
And here we are with a movie in which cops actively engage in brutal activity and illegal, unethical methods of law enforcement. In fact — forgive me for dancing around spoilers — there’s at least one occasion in the film where a cop murders an innocent person for no reason at all, and with no consequences. But it’s all okay, because the cop is fundamentally broken by the stresses of the job. Sorry, but I’m not sure that’s the message we need to hear right now.
Though to be fair, it does bear mentioning that both of our lead cops are played by people of color, and their chief suspect is a white man. That racial inversion does take a bit of the edge off, and I don’t know if it’s a step any filmmaker would’ve taken back in the ’90s.
But even if you don’t agree with the Black Lives Matter, #DefundThePolice crowd, the fact remains that this material has already been done and done better by umpteen other crime dramas out there. (Again, Se7en is my pick the definitive example.) The sad and simple truth is that this movie pretty much glides on rails through much of its runtime, without much of anything that’s particularly shocking or novel or interesting… up until the last fifteen minutes.
The big climactic twist is a game-changer. In that split-second action, the whole film crystallizes and takes on an entirely new meaning. Though if a movie doesn’t reach its peak until the last fifteen minutes, that’s not exactly much of a ringing endorsement.
On a final miscellaneous note, I did like the car chases here. Ever since Drive in 2011, I’ve found an appreciation for car chases that are more complex and strategic than simply “move fast and break shit.” It’s not often you see a car chase in which the two parties slow down, speed up, maneuver, observe, and try to out-think each other. There’s a lot of suspense to enjoy in that. But then you’ve got the car chase near the start of the third act that’s edited to shit. Damn shame.
The Little Things so clearly wants to be an awards contender, yet it’s so much less than the sum of its parts. Sure it’s well-acted and there’s little that’s objectively wrong with the filmmaking, but it’s hard to get past the tin-eared themes or the humdrum plot that doesn’t really get going until the climax. And it’s hard to get excited about such a gloomy, straightforward serial killer chase when more recent murder mysteries (Knives Out and The Nice Guys come immediately to mind) are presented with so much more style, humor, novelty, and intelligence.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is that The Little Things was made to rip off other, better, more successful crime thrillers that were hot thirty years ago. Sorry, but I can’t recommend this.