A slow-burn serial killer saga that leans into genre clichés like they haven’t been bludgeoned to death yet, John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” isn’t just set in 1990, it was also written in 1990. And it wasn’t just written in 1990, it still feels like it could’ve been made then, too — an unambiguous positive at a time when most straight-to-streaming fare is so cheap and glossy that it makes 20th century shlock like “Kiss the Girls” and “The Bone Collector” feel like Visconti movies by comparison.
But really it’s “Se7en” that comes to feel like the most obvious antecedent of all, even if that epochal hit came out a few years after Hancock first hatched the idea for this one. Here is another vivid, patient, character-driven psychological thriller that sees its A-list cast as a license to subvert audience expectations, prioritize the detectives over the murderer they’re trying to catch, and offer a gruesomely dark vision of the world that focuses its lens on how the light gets in.
If a journeyman like Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Founder”) doesn’t grip this story with the Fincher-like stranglehold its subject demands — and his script relies on a moral disorder that it doesn’t always have the language to define — “The Little Things” is nevertheless held aloft by the gravitational pull of its star power and sustained by the sheer delight of watching Hollywood take itself as seriously as it did in the days before “product” curdled into “content.” Denzel Washington is still big — it’s the screens that got small.
Despite being diverted onto HBOMax along with the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate because of the pandemic, “The Little Things” was clearly shot with the immersion of a movie theater in mind; that’s not code for “slow,” it’s just a way of saying that Hancock’s film doesn’t seem like the overeager kind of fare that was made or paid for by people who ever planned to measure its success by the number of minutes it kept subscribers from clicking back over to “Bridgerton.” And while some of that classical flavor can be attributed to Hancock’s general steeliness and sense of place, the brunt of the credit inevitably belongs to Washington, who — even in the role of a haunted and humbled sixty-something deputy sheriff — still commands an unimpeachable degree of “I dare you to look at your cell phone” swagger.
Joe “Deke” Deacon has been wearing one badge or another for as long as he can remember, but as he nears retirement age in the fall of 1990 — a semi-recent transplant to the dusty stretch of Kern County, California that’s come to serve as his adopted jurisdiction — he seems less interested in catching bad guys than he is in punishing himself. Denzel Washington plays the obviously wounded Deacon with the hard stare, brilliant smile, and subdued “what’s he going to do with this take?” wild streak of a guy who used to be Denzel Washington in a past life, before something went very wrong with his high-profile detective work and he fled Los Angeles with his tail between his legs.
Washington has always been able to see through people like he could level anything in his eyeline, but with Deke (Deke!) that same gaze seems directed inwards; Washington’s knack for playing the wisest guy in the room is a subtly compelling fit for a character by a character who seems to have learned his lessons the hard way. And when an evidence-gathering trip down to L.A. coincides with a spate of murders that resemble an unsolved case from his past, Deke is forced to confront the fact that his greatest teacher is still at large.
Deke isn’t looking for trouble. His retreat into rural living might have been a surrender, but it was also an act of self-preservation — there are demons back in the big city, and they’d love nothing more than to sink their talons into him all over again. But when hotshot Homicide Department Sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) hears that Deke is back in town, he can’t help but take advantage of his predecessor’s expertise.
The dynamic between these two guys is fascinating from the start, especially because Baxter doesn’t seem like the type who’d ask for help; a 39-year-old Oscar-winner who still oozes big “three kids in a trench coat” energy and delivers every line with enough vocal fry to fill the sound mix, Malek plays the part like a twerpy cross between Phoenix Wright and Ben Shapiro. Between his stiff strut, checkered suits, and Doogie Howser P.I. vibes, it seems like Baxter is either going to have lots of inter-generational tension with Deke, turn out to be the killer, or both (the casual reveal that Baxter has a wife, two young daughters, and a lot of guilt over the cases he wasn’t able to solve is so unexpected that it hits like a plot twist, and suggests that Malek might be overplaying his oddness).
The relationship that Hancock forges between them, however, is all the more engaging for its well-earned sense of mutual understanding. An early visit to a crime scene where a young woman’s body has been posed for unknown reasons suggests that both of these guys take their work home with them and have a borderline paranormal ability to sniff clues off a corpse (Deke literally talks to dead bodies and sees their ghosts in the night). They might have different ways of doing business — Deke solves cases to satisfy his own conscience, while Baxter is still fresh enough to put the victims first — they’re the only ones capable of appreciating the un-payable toll that it takes. That it should take. “Victims are your life-long responsibility,” Deke cautions his unofficial colleague. “If you’re lucky, you never get used to it.”
At the same time, Deke often seems like he’s trying to prevent Baxter from following in his footsteps, and the parallels between them awkwardly click into place as “The Little Things” unpacks his backstory. Hancock indicates a much deeper well of pain than he’s willing to examine, and his errant symbols of guilt and trauma (e.g. the odd shot of Deke cowering before a giant cross) aren’t enough to provide this film with the emotional bedrock it needs to support its heaviest ideas, but it’s hard to stay mad about that as the story unspools into a city-wide cat-and-mouse game between the detectives and Jared Leto.
Leto’s casting as prime suspect Albert Sparma works for the same reason Malek’s performance does: Pitting a flashy, ultra-mannered, “why make one acting choice when you can make 10?” kind of star against a bullshit-intolerant elder statesman like Washington creates an electric friction that could spiral in any direction at a moment’s notice. Leto — to no one’s surprise — is perfectly happy to underscore that contrast. He doesn’t pop his head into the movie until near the start of its second hour, and his presence is so much (just so much) that his innocuous first appearance caused this critic to cackle out loud.
Every Jared Leto character seems like a serial killer unless proven otherwise, and that’s certainly true of Mr. Sparma; imagine if Charles Manson swapped into a teen idol’s body and then soiled it from the inside out for several decades and you’ll have the right idea. Wild mane? Check. Thousand-yard stare? Check. The indifferent paunch of a man who would rather masturbate to old newspaper clippings than make love to an actual person? Triple check. Watching L.A.’s best detectives hunt this guy down is like watching someone look for a billboard with a magnifying glass.
But there’s a method to all this madness, and Hancock uses the eccentricities of Leto’s performance to pull our attention away from the particulars of the case and instead towards Deke and Baxter’s need for closure. The bait-and-switch doesn’t fully excuse the movie from eliding major clues, opening plot holes to fill in character beats, or leaning on hacky cop dialogue (“If you didn’t know any you better you might say it’s beautiful,” Malek notes as he sizes up a crime scene), and anyone eager to learn about the killer’s pathology will leave disappointed, but Hancock’s approach allows the standoff with Sparma to grow more intense as it focuses on the under-written men pursuing him.
It all builds to a breathless confrontation in the middle of nowhere; one that lacks the shock value of the iconic ending from “Se7en,” but maintains its hard-nosed moral focus, and leads to a final grace note so humane that it’s tempting to forgive the lapses in logic that are required to make it work. “Stay out of the angel business,” Deke warns Baxter. And yet, Hancock’s fun and unusual riff on the serial killer genre proves rewarding because of the divine protection these men try to offer each other. “The Little Things” is pulpy and ridiculous and requires some major suspension of belief, but — if you didn’t know any better — you might even say it’s beautiful.
Warner Bros. will release “The Little Things” in theaters and on HBOMax on Friday, January 29.
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