The dream of the ’90s is alive in The Little Things, a new serial killer thriller that’s actually anything but new. Writer-director John Lee Hancock penned the script back in the early 1990s, and the finished film arrives here in 2021 with its ’90s aesthetic intact. The cars are boxy, there’s not a cell phone in sight, and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in a dozen other serial killer thrillers before. Hancock’s script first surfaced in 1993, which means it pre-dated 1995’s Seven. But while the source material came before David Fincher’s gloomy serial killer hit, the film itself is often woefully derivative. Moviegoers nostalgic for those serial killer flicks of yesterday may get a cheap thrill out of what’s on display here, but that’ll only get them so far.
The ’90s were a kind of renaissance for serial killer thrillers. Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed The Silence of the Lambs kicked things off in 1991, resulting in a masterpiece that swept the Oscars and remains beloved to this day. But it was David Fincher’s Seven in 1995 that really ushered in a boom. Despite its unflinching darkness, gore-drenched crime scenes, and relatively untested director (Fincher made his bones in music videos, but his only feature before Seven was Alien 3, a derided film that Fincher disowned due to studio interference), Seven was a box office hit – the seventh-highest-grossing film of ’95. Whenever a surprise hit like this arrives, Hollywood immediately starts rushing to reproduce that success. After Seven we saw the entertaining Copycat (which, to be fair, was in production at the same time as Seven), and bargain-basement knock-offs that stretched into the early 2000s. Titles like Fallen, Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, Taking Lives, and Suspect Zero, just to name a few.
Now, after all of that, here comes The Little Things, a film that hopes to distance itself from its predecessors by becoming a kind of period piece. When Hancock first penned the Little Things script in the ’90s, his story was cutting-edge and modern. Now, it’s quaint. Characters can’t text each other; computers are big, blocky beasts with green text; and everyone’s fashion sense is a touch dated. To its credit, The Little Things doesn’t announce its ’90s setting upfront. There’s no title card to tell us we’re not in the present day, and there aren’t a wealth of 1990s-themed references. Instead, Hancock allows the viewer to figure it out on their own, and it’s a fun little touch in a not-so-fun movie.
There’s a serial killer on the loose in California. The killer targets young women, brutally murders them, and then poses their corpses in artistic tableaus. A few years ago, Los Angeles Detective Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) was chasing this killer, and the case nearly broke him. Things got so bad that Deke fled town and got bumped-down in rank. Now, he’s a Kern County Deputy Sheriff, and the type of faded legend that everyone still whispers about whenever he comes back to his old stomping grounds.
Washington, one of the last bonafide movie stars around, is predictably captivating. He’s played this sort of role before, and he can probably do it in his sleep at this point, but that doesn’t make him any less enjoyable to watch. He leans into the character’s quirkiness, from his thrift-store suits to a pair of boots he wears that he filched from the evidence locker. There’s a chance that Washington realized there’s not a whole lot to his character and tried to spice things up by making him more off-beat, and it works.
In the years since Deke left, a new hotshot detective has risen in the ranks and is on the killer’s trail. That hotshot is Jimmy Baxter, played with just the right amount of smugness by Rami Malek. While Jimmy’s approach to law enforcement is rigid, by-the-book, and prone to showboating (he loves getting headlines and taking part in press conferences), Deke has his own strange, unconventional methods. The two cops are polar opposites – so, of course, movie logic dictates that they’ll soon be working together.
The Little Things doesn’t keep its mystery very mysterious for long. There’s a suspect almost immediately, and since that suspect seems like a total creep, Deke and Jimmy – and by extension, the audience – seem pretty sure he’s their man. That would be Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto. Leto is clearly the actor having the most fun here, and he works hard to make Sparma as repulsive as possible, from his shuffling walk to his stringy, unwashed hair, to the way he’s constantly taunting the cops who have him in their sights.
But again: there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Odd-couple cops who team-up to stop an over-the-top psycho? Been there, done that. What almost elevates The Little Things above all of this familiarity is a constant reminder that the lawmen on the case are more than willing to break the law. To be clear: cops bending the rules is nothing new. Hell, TV shows like the long-running Law and Order: Special Victims Unit have weekly occurrences of police officers bucking norms to get their perp.
The Little Things takes it a bit further, though. Both Deke and Jimmy are more than happy to spit all over the Constitutional rights of a suspect. Sure, Sparma is creepy as hell – but that doesn’t mean he’s actually the killer, and Deke and Jimmy don’t have nearly enough evidence to prove he’s guilty. No matter – Deke and Jimmy harass him, follow him around, physically abuse him, and bust into his house without a warrant. While this was unfolding I began to perk up. Was The Little Things trying to underscore the idea of bad cops who know they can get away with being bad because this country protects them? Is that the type of movie this was trying to be?
Sadly, the answer ended up being, “No.” That’s not what The Little Things is going for here. Instead, the film seems to be saying that it’s perfectly okay for cops to completely obliterate the rules as long as they’re, like, 96% sure they’re right. Still, the fact that I found myself noticing these ideas at all earns The Little Things some credit. And there’s a haunting quality to the way film draws to a close that I wish had been explored just a little bit more.
Hancock’s direction is slick but mostly anonymous. There’s a distinct lack of style here, save for some flashbacks and an admittedly memorable moment where cops search a pitch-black crime scene where the power has been cut off. Back in the 1990s, Steven Spielberg was considering directing Hancock’s script, as were Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito, and it’s hard not to imagine how much more interesting this thing would’ve turned out if any of those directors had taken the gig.
As entertaining as it may be to revel in the 1990s setting of it all, not updating the script makes The Little Things feel stale. The bad guys are one-note creeps; the men are stoic and violent; the women only exist to be either background noise or helpless victims. Even some 30 years ago all of this would’ve felt dated. Today, The Little Things has even less to offer.
/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10
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Author: Chris Evangelista
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January 26, 2021