Director John Lee Hancock is notable for feel good biographical dramas like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks but takes a different route in his latest film, the serial killer psychological drama The Little Things. Hancock has been trying to make the movie for about 30 years and while he insists he wrote the script before Seven, this still feels like a limp wristed Seven clone. Still, the trio of main actors in Things elevates the proceedings. For a serial killer movie, it doesn’t really have many big scares. It settles on being vaguely unsettling and has a different ending that may be aiming for morally ambiguous and subversive but mostly just comes off as somewhat unsatisfying. The Little Things has short bursts when the creepiness does feel creepy although other times it just feels like a generic murder procedural but with higher caliber actors than on network TV.
In 1990, Deputy Sheriff Deke (Denzel Washington) is drawn into a murder investigation with Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Deke is still obsessed with a case from years ago and this new mystery stirs up old feelings about the one that got away. Now the old veteran and young protégé are on the tracks of a potential suspect, Sparma (Jared Leto). But none of the clues are adding up as Sparma has a history of confessing to crimes he didn’t commit but the two cops are certain he did it. Although the longer case goes without solving, it gnaws away at them as they desperately seek justice.
Denzel is playing a beaten down grizzled cop who can’t let go of a case which is a standard cop movie cliché but he sells the emotional toil. The eventual reveal as to deep down what has been bothering him is a decent payoff which retroactively reframes his actions throughout the film. A lot of the performance is just Denzel grimly staring out of a car or grimly staring at a bloody floor. Still, sometimes it works, like when he has a monologue with a victim’s corpse and pontificates about the choices that led her to being murdered, or when he is looking at the files of the victims and old ghosts haunt his vision.
Malek’s Baxter starts as a clean cut investigative officer who has an emotional empathy with the victims, saying that until the killer is caught “We work for her.” As the situation gets more frazzled, Baxter starts to become unhinged and Malek is good at showing a guy losing his cool. This culminates in a finale where Baxter’s actions may be a bit too jarringly different from the controlled, God fearing, family loving guy he started as. It’s difficult to say that what he does in the finale is dramatically satisfying although it does have the appeal of being extremely unexpected.
Leto’s character is what the story hinges around and he takes a while to be introduced. There’s a benefit to holding back the monster but a lot of the movie drags until he shows up. Leto’s Sparma can’t hold a candle to the shockingly disturbing John Doe from Seven that this movie wants to emulate; Sparma isn’t as grandiosely evil. He’s mostly just guilty of bad taste humour as photos of victims fails to generate any sympathy from him. Leto has a slowly spoken vocal inflection which may be meant to be menacing but sometimes just makes him sound like he’s just kind of dim witted. Still there are scenes where it feels like he can erupt in violence at any second which does make his scenes suitably tense. The script basically strings the audience along about his guilt until a resolution that may be trying too hard to be different.
The Little Things has a lot of autopsies and crime scenes which are unsettling although nothing as artfully graphic as Seven. The crime scenes in Things involving ugly reveals of murder victims feel a wee bit exploitive. The title refers to Deke saying that in searching for clues it’s the little things that get the killers caught, which is a really worn out cop movie cliché. Frustratingly, for all the red herrings and discussion of evidence, the investigative stuff comes off as busywork, generic crime movie filler. The emotional ending of the movie hinges upon a specific piece of evidence but since the script spends so much time quibbling about all the different pieces of evidence, it can be easy to miss. With the movie being set in 1990 getting a conviction hinges upon partial fingerprints, a case solving method that by now seems positively archaic. One of the movie’s few genuine moments of levity is when the fingerprint forensic scientist is not giving Baxter enough information and Baxter snips, “What exactly is it that you guys do again?”
The Little Things is a thriller that doesn’t exactly have thrilling chases or cathartic explosions of violence which is usually a requirement of the serial killer movie genre. It’s more about an unsettling and disconcerting vibe that hangs over the proceedings. The actors pep things up by adding more to the characters than what is present on the page. This is a low-key thriller although it does stand out by providing an unexpected, if not entirely fulfilling, ending.
The Little Things
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto