The Little Things is streaming on HBOMax
Hey, you! You, the person who just dropped a few hundred bucks on screenwriting software and who bought a veritable library of books on how to write a winning script. You, the person who was struck by a (potentially misguided) bolt of motivation to roll up your sleeves and bang out a screenplay about a serial killer.
Look, don’t get me wrong, pretty much as long as there have been movies, there have been movies about disturbing maniacs who prey on the innocent. Fritz Lang’s M had to do with a child murderer in Berlin, and it was made in 1931. A chunk of those films are actually Honest-to-God classics, Consider that Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Memories of Murder, and Zodiac have stood the test of time and achieved cinematic immortality.
In a way, though, they’re the outliers, the few films worth remembering. There’s been a ludicrous amount of serial killer movies made,* and most of them lean heavily on the old tropes: a force of nigh-unstoppable evil stalking victims, an obsessed detective, the underwritten spouse of the aforementioned obsessed detective, and a moral conundrum. The new film The Little Things is…ah…definitely one of those movies.
We’re transported into the distant past of 1990,** where a plucky young woman is driving down a lonely road, singing pluckily to a pop song. Is the motorist behind her following her or simply going in the same direction? Yep, he’s following her! They wind up at a darkened gas station, where the young woman a) gets out of her car, b) pounds desperately on the doors and windows, and c) flees into the desert which increases the likelihood of her being inconveniently killed. Luckily, a trucker picks her up and her pursuer melts back into the shadows.
Time passes and we’re introduced to Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), a deputy sheriff working in Bakersfield. He’s haunted, as evidenced by his solitary desert house and the stray dog that comes with the place.*** Joe’s boss sends him on an errand to Los Angeles, and let me tell you, Joe is none too thrilled with this errand! Back in the day, Joe worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and back in the day, Something Terrible Happened. Now, Joe must collect a piece of evidence in a recent murder case.
You will not be shocked to learn that Joe’s welcome in L.A. is not a warm one. It’s positively sub-Arctic, with his former commanding officer Captain Carl Ferris (Terry Kinney) making some very disparaging remarks. Maybe they’re just stressed, considering the dead body of a woman has been found and there are no suspects. Hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is on the case, and he swears that justice will be done.
Since Joe is played by Denzel Washington, he inserts himself into the case.**** You will also not be shocked to learn that there are similarities between this killing and a series that Joe previously investigated. Soon after, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) gets on Joe and Baxter’s radar. We discover that Sparma is an off-putting weirdo who enjoys toying with the investigators. But is he truly the killer, and if so, how can they prove it?
So…look. By nature, I’m someone who goes into a movie rooting for it to succeed. I also try not to succumb to hyperbole. If I’m being honest, The Little Things is a perfectly serviceable movie, and it’s a perfectly fine way to while away two hours and seven minutes. To say it’s a bad movie is to claim it’s poorly written, incompetently directed, or foolishly acted. None of those things are true. Unfortunately, this film is like ice cream from Dairy Queen. It’s fine, but we can do so much better.
Director John Lee Hancock doesn’t have too much of an identifiable style. His films tend to be clean and efficient, and if you look at his filmography, you’ll likely say about at least one of his films, “Hey, that was pretty good!” Here, he creates an appropriately somber vibe that feels like a sleeker and more studio friendly version of Seven. The melancholy is broken up with an occasionally puckish sense of humor, where we see Joe tracking his suspect as the soundtrack plays old love songs. It’s an offbeat touch and I certainly wouldn’t have minded more of it.
Hancock wrote his screenplay way back in 1993, and the plan was for Steven Spielberg to direct. Not much has been updated since then, as the script feels like a throwback. There’s a “grizzled veteran and upstart newbie” dynamic, and the first third is okay as it settles into a standard procedural. Yet problems pop up. The killer is targeting women, but we’re never given the chance to get to know who any of the victims are. Speaking of which, with the possible exceptions of coroner Flo Dunigan (Michael Hyatt) and Baxter’s partner Estrada (Natalie Morales), all the female characters are either dead, stalked, or worrying about the men.***** The dialogue is as hard-boiled as you’d expect. I was not pleased with a sequence where Jared Leto’s character literally says out loud to one of the cops, “We’re not so different, you and I. In another life, we could have been friends.”
There are three Academy Award winners headlining the cast, and if nothing else, this film is worth watching to see their respective approaches to the material. Denzel Washington has long ago proved that he can elevate even the most rickety material. He brings a grounded realism to his role, and even in scenes you’ve seen a thousand times before, he behaves as an intelligent, three-dimensional person and not as a guy reading lines. A lesser actor would play the role of Baxter as an overconfident hothead. Rami Malek brings down the histrionics and plays him as a subdued and thoughtful man getting caught up in an obsession.
And then there’s Jared Leto. Overall, I like him as a performer, and I frequently return to good work he’s done in Panic Room, Lord of War and Dallas Buyers Club. Things began to change in Suicide Squad, where Leto played a Joker so irritating that I hoped for a scene where Ben Affleck’s Batman would pound the stuffing out of him. He seems to be on a similar track as Johnny Depp, where a goofy costume and weird mannerisms will do in lieu of a performance. As the perpetually squirrelly Albert Sparma, Leto does decent work playing the kind of guy who likes to toy with police, and he creates an interesting question: is Sparma the killer or just a dude who enjoys playing head games? The problem is, Leto’s performance doesn’t mesh with Washington and Malek, which creates an off feeling of two totally different movies mashed together.
At the end of the day, The Little Things is fine. It has a twist (but not too much of a twist), it’s slick enough to never get too disturbing, and it doesn’t require much heavy lifting for viewers. However, if you’re bound and determined to write a serial killer screenplay, don’t play it safe like this. Go nuts and show us something new. If not, why bother? Also, while you’re at it, please also don’t write a drama about a disaffected young white guy who learns how to live from a quirky young woman. Because I can’t even with that.
*Whoever your favorite actor is, there’s a good chance they’ve been in a movie that has something or another to do with a serial killer. Yes, even Tom Hanks.
**Yes, a movie set in 1990 is now a period piece. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner ugly crying.
***You can always tell when a character is a haunted cop if they either drink too much or smile sadly at a pet. I want to see a movie where the haunted cop sadly knits an afghan blanket.
****If Denzel’s character was played by, say, me, the Los Angeles cops would tell me to be fruitful and multiply with myself.
*****I tell a lie, there’s a great scene where an apartment manager played by Lee Garlington complains to Denzel that cleaning up a blood-spattered apartment is going to be a pain in the ass.