‘The Little Things’ is a vintage thriller with big problems

The Little Things is a rare film that tries to encapsulate the nostalgic experience of an attempt the modern dark, broody storytelling that was largely contributed by ‘90s crime thrillers such as Silence of the Lambs and “Zodiac” while blending in the classic slow-burn crime dramas such as “True Detective.”

Although on paper it seems to be a bona fide way to revitalize the genre back on the silver screen, The Little Things doesn’t reach its full potential as its transition lacks the suspense and rawness that makes these films timeless and addicting to watch.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things follows a weary and consciously battered Denzel Washington on the trail of a serial killer as the psychological effects of police work are taking a toll on both himself and his partner, portrayed by Rami Malek.

At first glance, one might think that the film serves as a spiritual successor of David Fincher’s works such SE7EN or Zodiac, but it misses the individuality that sets those films apart from other crime-thrillers.

The Little Things tries to juggle between different, tried, and true narratives of old school vs. new school, a criminal mastermind and the broken detective story. In short, the film feels dated the second it starts.

Part of the reason is due to the fact director John Lee Hancock started writing the film back in the early ‘90s for Steven Spielberg to direct; only for the deal to fall through, according to an interview he did with Deadline. After almost three decades in limbo, Hancock eventually got the reins off the ground.

Although it still feels “old” for modern audiences, the film’s vintages work in the setting’s favor as it transforms from a contemporary modern flick to a period piece of the early ‘90s.

The film’s nerve-wracking and compelling cold opening fully utilizes the aesthetic through the use of a cat and mouse chase of the killer and victim who manages to barely escape from the sinister and deadly clutches of the masked butcher.

The film’s first third segment also develops a sense of urgency between Joe Deacon (Washington) and Jim Baxter (Malek) as they try to solve the case in an era before the internet, smartphones, and before sophisticated forensics were readily available; relying on an old school vs. new school dynamic that naturally evolves their relationship from brief rivals to closest confidants in the case.

The first third also does an effective narrative as it follows Deacon, a disgraced former L.A. cop who now works as a seemingly modest desk-jockey, sheriff’s deputy in Central California. Deacon or “Deke” as he is often referred to, visits the City of Angels on assignment when a new series emerges from the shadows to wreak havoc.

He is haunted by, literally, the victims of his previous cases to which he becomes an unlikely partner to Baxter, a family-man careerist, as the string of brutal murders reawakens his obsession with a case that led to his downfall. The working dynamics of the two men follow the trope of old school vs. new school as it naturally evolves into a relationship that develops into one of close confidants.

Academy Award winners Rami Malek (left), Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in “The Little Things.” Courtesy photo. Warner Media

Despite it having an effective first third and establishes at a higher level than its predecessors in the genre, The Little Things only reaches its peak at the beginning and starts to feel like an episode from one of the many C.S.I. shows as it progresses.

The middle of the film sees The Little Things introduction of its Hannibal Lector character: the creepy, unwholesomely loner Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) who becomes the prime suspect in murders. The dynamic of the film shifts from a tale of an unlikely duo to a cat and mouse in which Sparma finds the sick pleasure of being the center of attention throughout the investigation.

Leto’s character takes on the cunning low-life that harasses and plays mind games with the detectives that, at times, steals scenes. Like peanut butter and jelly, Washington’s grounded approach towards Deacon works as a perfect combination of Leto’s Sparma, making an interrogation scene between one of the best parts of the film.

Malek is in between the two very contrasting characters in his scenes. He’s more a middle man that sort of adapts to be the other’s temporary “opposite.” It’s not a bad take, but it doesn’t give many opportunities to outshine the rest.

Despite some riveting performances by the top-billed cast, the film loses its steam as the story once again changes. This time it is one as a cautionary tale of obsession. By then, The Little Things loses the lack of urgency and tension that cultivated since the opening shot.

It defies the logic that it established early on and ends it in a vexed note. In a film that questions moral ambiguity and focuses heavily on “the little things,” it didn’t prioritize the big things that could’ve made the story better.

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