Synopsis – Two cops track down a serial killer.
My Take – The hook that caught me right from the first preview was the fact that it has been a while since I had seen a good English language twisted serial killer themed thriller that kept me guessing throughout, and with Denzel Washington leading, it just felt like excellent icing on an already very delicious cake.
However, right from the first minute something about Warner Bros.’ first simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max release of 2021 felt familiar, mainly as writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) wrote the first draft in 1993 for Steven Spielberg (who obviously passed it) to direct, hence the whole film feels like a throwback with familiar tropes like police flashlights piercing a dark room filled with forensic evidence, ironic 60s R&B music, neon-stained streets, a murder board packed with photos and clues popping in.
Honestly, in my opinion, the film almost shamelessly revels in it, trying hard to be on the lines of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). Resulting in a grim but mostly by-the-numbers cop drama that seems too aware of the trappings of the genre, yet manages to be engrossing, in part due to the film’s incredible performances, and a resonant ending that subverts nearly all traits and expectations of a cops-trying-to-catch-a-serial-killer drama.
Honestly, with lesser talent’s involvement, it is hard to imagine director Hancock pull off a slow-burn thriller concerning regret and obsession.
Set in 1990, the story follows Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Kern County Deputy Sheriff (Denzel Washington), who is not too pleased to be informed that he has to drive to Los Angeles, his former home, in the morning for a routine evidence-gathering assignment for an upcoming trial. However, on reaching the city he left five years ago, he becomes embroiled in the hunt for a killer terrorizing the city, led by his old police department, and headed by Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), a new hotshot LASD Detective, who believes Deacon can be an asset in his investigation.
Though Deacon feels that his former skeletons could jeopardize the whole case, all feelings are pushed aside when he comes to realize, the killer they seek, may be the same one the old-timer couldn’t catch five years prior.
The film plays it fairly safe in its first act, as it explains the crimes of the serial killer and teases out the damage Deke’s sustained on the job to his former marriage, his health, his mental health, and the fixations one can hold. Here, director Hancock is patient, deliberate, and focuses on some striking night-time cinematography, all of which will makes one forgive the more conservative elements of the script.
Sure, the film draws plenty of comparisons as a tamer, less gritty and far less macabre version of “Se7en” which also saw an older detective pair up with a younger one to solve a slate of gruesome murders by a soft-spoken sociopath, here, director Hancock attempts to set itself apart in several key ways, especially by leaving Deacon’s past a mystery that unravels until the very end, sustaining our intrigue and anticipation for the big reveal.
Yes, while the overall execution, particularly in aspects of plot and characterization, might not evoke the pulse-pounding thrill of the best of the genre, but the textured depiction of a homicide investigation, and the elements of nostalgia is a heavy portion of what makes the film roll along so smoothly, ticking the boxes of what we expect from such a feature as we wait for everything to come to a dynamic turn.
A turn which comes with the appearance of Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), an unstable appliance repairman who has a fascination with detective work, into the mix, and finds immense pleasure in their interest in him. Sparma goads the former by both the cops, by either reminding of the murders Deacon has failed to solve and by leveraging Jimmy’s dedication to victims as a way to tarnish the spirit of the supposed boy wonder.
His textbook cat and mouse game, fracturing Deacon’s seemingly unbreakable facade during interrogation and turns the tables on the bumbling detectives as they attempt to find evidence in his apartment. Without a doubt, the interrogation room is the highlight of the film.
The film’s bleakness not only propels the trio of actors, but also Thomas Newton’s anxious score; cinematographer John Schwartzman’s photography; and director Hancock’s focus on broken souls.
However, after a while, it seemed like director Hancock didn’t seem very eager to get into the psychology of Sparma. The story doesn’t reveal much about the singularly strange Sparma, or how this greasy-haired slob who never changes his uniform also keeps his car so pristine and clean. Factors which end up undermining the whole buildup of the film.
Coming to the ending, honestly, I believe it is a blessing and a curse the film doesn’t wrap up with precise and explicit clarity, allowing unexpected parallels and connections to be drawn. Sure, the cost of the twist undermines the characters, leaving them flattened and hollowed out, but the more I sit with it the more I appreciate the way director Hancock leaves his conclusion messy, emphasizing the trauma left in the wake of violence and positioning the reveal of its debilitating effects as one final lesson from Deacon to Baxter.
As one would expect the performances are the biggest selling point of the film, with three Oscar winners leading the film. Denzel Washington continues to be compelling on screen and makes even the most cynical believe in what he’s selling. Now pushing 70, his hair dotted with more salt than pepper, Washington fits the profile of an old pro resisting retirement; his comfort with playing his age, rather than masking it, makes him the ideal fit for this shopworn role.
Alongside him, Rami Malek stoops a little for obvious reasons. Usually the one playing more weirded characters, he is a less natural choice to play the straight-laced college boy foil, but Malek and Washington settle into the moldy dynamic well, trading banter over golden oldies during a stakeout.
Jared Leto too brings in another wild performance. Playing the pale, greasy long haired Sparma, the actor once more shows how much he enjoys playing offbeat characters. Though he doesn’t show up in the film until well past the halfway point, he brings a certain edge to the film with a character who seems to never blink and has hilariously twisted one-liners. In supporting roles, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Natalie Morales, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, and Terry Kinney are also good. On the whole, ‘The Little Things’ is a standard yet compelling throwback psychological thriller fueled by superb performances.
Directed – John Lee Hancock
Rated – R
Run Time – 127 minutes