Note: The writer of this review watched The Little Things on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
“You know, you and I are a lot alike,” the suspect tells the detective. “In another lifetime, we could have been friends.” The words are uttered without a hint of irony, without a wink or a nudge or the faintest suggestion that the character speaking them or the actor delivering them or the writer who wrote them has any clue that they’ve been trotted out a thousand times before in a thousand movies just like this one. That’s the way of The Little Things, a cop thriller so drenched in the clichés of its genre—the brooding archetypes on both sides of the law, the guilt and obsession, the hoary hard-boiled patter—that it often plays like an accidental spoof with the jokes withheld. The film is set in 1990, the same year it was written, and were it not for the stylistic cues it takes from a former music-video director and his iconic additions to the canon of movies about intelligent psychopaths and the workaholic investigators on their tail, one might assume that everyone involved emerged from a cryogenic chamber, blissfully unaware of the last three decades of likeminded fare.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. A killer stalks the streets of Los Angeles, preying on young women. Into the open investigation saunters a veteran manhunter: Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), years removed from his heyday as a hotshot dick of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, now working a much quieter beat as a patrol deputy some two-and-a-half hours outside the city. Joe is grizzled and haunted. He has scores unsettled, demons unvanquished, old cases weighing on his conscience. He talks to corpses like an over-the-hill Will Graham, and sees ghosts of those he couldn’t save. So when a routine evidence pickup brings him back to his one-time jurisdiction, this relic of law enforcement finds himself on the job again, chasing another killer even though he’s Too Old For This Shit. Before long, Deke’s staying in a seedy L.A. motel, muttering to himself in the green-tinted darkness, flashlight trained on the evidence he’s tacked to the wall. Does it count as restraint on the film’s part that he hasn’t connected each photo with a strand of yarn?
Washington, like his character, is back on familiar turf. The Oscar winner moonlighted in policier pulp through a chunk of the real ’90s, in feverish pursuit of bone collectors, body-jumping maniacs, and virtual-reality killers. To the extent that The Little Things feels like a continuation of that era rather than just a shamelessly derivative throwback, it’s thanks to the weathering of his star power—the sense that we’re watching a worn-out, damaged version of all the whip-smart gumshoes to which he once lent his smiling magnetism and quicksilver intelligence. 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. The Little Things quickly pairs him with a young sort-of partner, the Mills to his Somerset: fast-rising sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), warned by his superiors that Deke’s way lies burnout, trouble, maybe madness. Malek, with his wide-eyed idiosyncrasy, is a less natural choice to play the straight-laced “college boy” foil, but he and Washington settle into the moldy dynamic well, trading banter over golden oldies during a stakeout.
The Little Things is pure boilerplate. There’s scarcely a moment in the movie that doesn’t recall a dozen predecessors, in form or content or both. That the supporting cast of second-string officers features two alums of The Wire provides a sense of the procedural vibe writer-director John Lee Hancock is slickly but imprecisely approximating. His script is a breathless, goofily enjoyable flurry of jargon and platitude and quip. When his characters aren’t endlessly pointing out the biblical dimension of their work—there’s lots of talk of God, church, angels, and reverends, augmented with a significant shot of a cross looming on a hill like the Hollywood sign—they’re arguing over who’s buying breakfast. To enjoy the film on its own cookie-cutter terms depends on finding pleasure, guilty or otherwise, in tropes recycled with total straight-faced conviction. Or maybe to crave comfort food of a variety Hollywood doesn’t churn out quite as frequently as it used to.
Hancock, whose CV is heavier on mush (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) than grit, has the good sense to steal from the best. He lends The Little Things a sinister glow and ambience that could be described as Designer Imposter David Fincher: all grimy apartments and underpasses, bathed in shadow and viridescent light. The suspenseful cold open, a tense encounter with an unseen driver on a lonely stretch of California highway, makes the influence immediately clear. Occasionally, the blatant Fincher envy shades into something like genuine pulp poetry: There’s a seductive Dragon Tattoo flow to the way editor Robert Frazen cuts from a person of interest dropping a trash bag of potential incriminating evidence to Washington’s snooping cop hauling it away—that feeling of being pulled forward by the force of a filmmaker’s own investigative fascination. And frequent blockbuster lensman John Schwartzman does a halfway decent Robert Elswit imitation throughout, his camera looming ominously over the city’s canyons as a predator stalks his next prey.
The shadow of Seven and its countless cat-and-mouse offspring falls unmistakably on The Little Things. That quality lurches into the foreground with the introduction of a prime suspect played, with a maximum of showboating creep arrogance, by Jared Leto. His skin pale and oily, his hair long and greasy, his eyes sunken in their sockets, Leto evokes Charles Manson long before Helter Skelter conspicuously pops up on the character’s bookshelf. (It’s an amusingly unsubtle performance, even as one is left to conclude that he and Malek could have easily swapped roles.) As guilty as this taunting oddball appears, the film comes to revolve around whether our detectives’ certainty about him can be trusted. Is this guy the culprit or just a weirdo who’s seen one too many movies about killers and the cops after them? A film more honest or self-aware about its relentless plagiarism might go full Scream at this point, but The Little Things is too sincere to actually thumb its nose at the conventions to which it slavishly (if sometimes effectively) adheres.
There’s a touch of Zodiac, too, in Hancock’s Fincher cosplay. To at least a superficial extent, the director embraces ambiguity—especially in the film’s admirably downbeat final stretch, when a shift to the dusty outskirts of the city, bathed in the almost accusatory illumination of headlights, does subvert some expectations about where a plot of such secondhand thrills might go. This final passage pays off all the mystery surrounding Deke’s troubled past, flirting with a critique of the kind of Denzel Washington vehicle that The Little Things unofficially sequelizes. In its unexpectedly grim upshot, the film even threatens to sync up with the spirit of the moment, a mass resistance to the hero worship bestowed upon anti-hero lawmen with a wavering regard for due process. Still, even that element creaks a little with age: Washington, after all, has revealed the dark side of the thin blue line before. And you’d have to go back a lot earlier than 1990 to find a cop movie genuinely novel in its understanding that, yes, sometimes the detective and his quarry are more alike than not.