Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto
It shouldn’t be this way, but the mid-budget meat’n’potatoes serial killer crime thriller has become something of a novelty. Back in the ’90s they were a dime a dozen. Now, their relative paucity causes any new offering to trigger a kind of wistful nostalgia. Which is strange as its a corner of the market that – a couple of pictures aside – never garnered much in the way of respect. Back in the day, if it wasn’t Jonathan Demme or David Fincher, nobody broke a sweat. Rumour has it that John Lee Hancock’s script for The Little Things has been rattling around since 1990 (the year the story is set). Through some chain of circumstance it belatedly joins us, and with a cast that includes such memeified A-listers as Rami Malek and Jared Leto. Thus this unassuming little picture has the minor feel of a modern-day curio.
In a role that might once have been earmarked for Morgan Freeman or Tommy Lee Jones, Denzel Washington plays veteran small-town sheriff Joe Deacon, who gets swept up in a serial killer investigation while running an errand in the big city. Rami Malek is prissy LA homicide detective Jim Baxter, carrying more than a whiff of early-career Robert Downey, Jr. about him. The two of them pace around grim crime scenes, squinting out windows at possible clues, exchanging rueful, semi-sardonic tidbits of dialogue. As Thomas Newman’s score paints pretty raindrops on the soundtrack, Hancock’s DP John Schwartzman douses the film in the sickly yellows of multi-storey parking garages. Blacks and greens persist in esteemed homage to Fincher’s 2007 genre high-watermark Zodiac. The Little Things certainly looks the part.
Any self-serious serial killer thriller worth its salt will pepper the supporting cast with fine character actors who are afforded only a line or two. So here, dutifully, are the likes of Michael Hyatt, Glenn Morshower and Chris Bauer, doing their bit to make coroners and superintendents a little bit spicier, a little more memorable. If this has been on Hancock’s back-burner for the better part of 30 years, its comes across as oddly passionless. He’s kept it relatively slow-paced (by today’s standards). Happy to trundle rather than showboat. I’m on the fence over whether that shows admirable confidence on his part, or over-confidence, perhaps. Still, the little moments – little things – that pause the narrative to feather in character development are usually pleasing. We’re not talking the wandering avenues and diversions of True Detective, but Hancock’s occasional detours help lift his piece out of the doldrums some.
As Washington showed with The Equalizer 2, just because the material is cosily mid-table it doesn’t mean he’ll offer up less than his A-game. He’s better than the movie honestly needs him to be, and he helps make The Little Things a pleasure to watch where it might otherwise have been so much moody background. Hancock throws in a couple of lightly bonkers choices, such as having Deacon talk to the deceased victims, or even have their spectres visit him in the dark of night. He comes across like an Average Joe Will Graham.
Which leaves us Jared Leto. For the first half of the picture the investigators are playing catch-up here and Leto’s lank-haired prime suspect Albert Sparma isn’t anywhere to be seen. He casts a tall shadow over proceedings, however, even as The Little Things shies away from getting too down and dirty with the crimes perpetrated. It almost feels mild-mannered about it all. As though Hancock finds his own material distasteful. Sparma’s arrival on screen marks a minor sea change in tone (Thomas Newman’s score, in turn, starts paying homage to Howard Shore’s efforts for Cronenberg’s Crash). The cat and mouse game inevitably intensifies, but Leto leads it into strange territories, almost tongue-in-cheek. If this were the ’90s, well… you’d almost expect Jim Carrey.
Leto pouts and struts some, but Malek still manages to slither more creepily. Watching the two size each other up is like witnessing two lizards flicking their tongues at one another.
There aren’t great revelations here. The most The Little Things has to say is that the roles of cop and criminal require similar levels of obsession and myopia – hardly a groundbreaker. Had it arrived when written, it might’ve beaten Se7en to a punch or two. Now though, Hancock’s rather languid offering serves up a light remix of the usual traits, no more, no less. I suppose there’s something perversely comforting about that. Still, one can’t help but feel that Washington is the only thing really keeping this tepid tale on track.