“The Little Things” (2021) Review

Dir. John Lee Hancock; Denzel Washingon, Jared Leto, Rami Malek

[1 out of 4 stars]

The Little Things (2021), directed by John Lee Hancock from a script that he reportedly started writing in the early 1990s, is another entry in the longstanding genre of serial killer crime movies focused on the toll that the job can take on detectives who overcommit to the case. Here, that honor belongs jointly to former detective, now beat cop, officer Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), and hotshot young detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). The case in question is that of a string of young women who have turned up dead with the same cause of death and post-mortem flourishes. After arriving in L.A. to pick up evidence for an unrelated case, Deacon, who previously worked for the L.A.P.D. before relocating when he got too close to a case, gets involved in Baxter’s investigation when the two men conclude that the current murders may connect to Deacon’s earlier case. Before too long, they have pegged Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) as their prime suspect, and work both inside and outside the constraints of legal policing to follow their joint hunch as far as possible and prove that Sparma is the killer they both need him to be. It is a story of crime, darkness, and desperation.

If that sounds familiar to you, congratulations, you and I are on the same page. The plot of The Little Things is tantamount to a fan-fiction that picks off the best parts of far superior crime movies and then throws them in a blender with a pinch of this and that until what comes out is tantamount to elevated David Fincher fan-fiction. The opening scene, where a young woman drives alone on a road and is harassed by a driver we assume is the killer, is nearly a note-for-note remake of the opening of Zodiac (2007), and the similarities do not stop there. While the set-up of an older Black cop dealing with the trauma of a long career while mentoring a younger white cop in pursuit of an elusive serial killer is most reminiscent of Se7en (1995), the wrinkle that Deacon is stuck in a haunted pursuit of a killer he never found is a diet ripoff of the arc Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) lived out in Zodiac. In its basest sense, Hancock’s script is little more than a remix of these two films, stripped of depth and complexity that make both of them pillars of a genre crowded with gems. Every plot beat and thematic element has been executed before in films of substantially greater artistic merit and entertainment value.

Even the way Hancock directs the film reduces the potential for artistry to an exercise in mimicry. The look of the film that he and cinematographer John Schwartzman craft is a paltry forgery of the stark and muted approach that Fincher has perfected over the years. Much of the film is shot at night, leaning into the look of neon signs and starless skies, but in a way that never locates dynamism; instead, it remains an indistinct mess of inhibited colors and lights. Even when scenes take place in the daytime and leave the dull darkness behind, Hancock frames every scene without a dose of imagination. The film is overrun by conversations constructed in strictly traditional shot-reverse-shot, establishing shots of police precincts and diners, and mind-numbingly repetitive sequences of people talking in cars, offices, and restaurants. A crime film is a powerful opportunity to establish a visual language of tension, suspense, and the occasional burst of violent action, but Hancock only locates drudgery. When he swings for notable shots, they only underscore his unoriginality. In what should be a powerful moment of climax when Baxter and Sparma are out in the countryside at a potential crime scene, Hancock opts to shoot it in nearly identical fashion to the Se7en’s infamous “What’s in the box?” sequence, and therefore squanders his best chance to salvage a glimpse of innovation. 

However, the most nauseating part of Hancock’s direction arises in the way he approaches female characters in the film. Female victims have been a staple of the serial killer genre since Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) calcified the sub-genre, and conversations about the fetishization of female corpses has therefore existed just as long (if you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend Alice Bolin’s book Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession). Hancock’s approach is practically the definitional example of what fetishizing a corpse looks like. He inserts a remarkable number of unnecessary shots of the victim’s naked bodies, lingering on their mottled breasts and body parts, most often without showing their faces. Hancock displays no empathy towards these women, content to splay them throughout his movie as macabre props. Such an approach is made even more distressing by the way that he treats his living female characters, with not a single woman in the film given time to exist as anything other than a plot device The Little Things contains a sickening thesis about women’s roles in these movies: they exist only to serve men or die. 

The only reason I decided not to bestow a ½ star or less on The Little Things is that Washington and Leto somehow deliver performances worth watching. Before you ask, yes, I’ve left Malek off of this list because I found him simply boring. Not bad, not good, but a complete non-factor, so I have nothing else to say about him. Washington, on the other hand, manages to cut through the drivelous script and remain magnetic as a tortured man unable to escape his demons. It is archetypal and rote, but he brings the same flashes of charisma that made Training Day (2001) such a hit, and his ability to arch an eyebrow or twitch a lip to display rising tension is fabulous. He is an actor who is always himself, never disappearing behind prosthetics or pounds of make-up, and so he relies on transformative physicality. His shoulders are slumped and his tone is cautious the whole time until Baxter lets him onto the case, and then he begins to straighten up and speak with authority, something Washington brings that is most definitely missing from the dialogue. In a vastly different fashion, Leto seems to be acting in a different movie altogether, offering up an unhinged performance that is camp at its best. He gives Sparma a swinging arm walk that makes him look like a pale and beer-gutted cartoon character, and his line-readings are deliciously deranged. During his first interrogation when Baxter drives him for a confession, Sparma cracks jokes about a pizza order, “pineapple and jalapenos,” and makes meta-jokes about how “this is when I’m supposed to get nervous, right?” The two performances could not be further apart in terms of tone or approach, but they both relay actors who are mining something of interest out of Hancock’s dregs. 

I imagine that everyone involved with The Little Things is currently uttering a sigh of relief that the movie is a part of Warner Bros. direct-to-HBO-Max release strategy because it no doubt saves them from having to stare down the massive box-office bomb the movie would have been in a normal year. I cannot recommend this movie to anyone and would say instead that if you love crime movies, you should go to the source and watch Se7en and Zodiac. Or, if you’ve seen them already, turn on Heat (1995), Sweet Virginia (2017), or Widows (2018). They are all exceptional movies that will hopefully live on in the popular memory while prattle like The Little Things is never spoken of again. 

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