In The Little Things, a serial killer is murdering beautiful young men, leaving them naked in the woods and in dank apartments, their bodies slim and hairless. The two female detectives working the case see their unclothed bodies on gurneys and in the photos of crimes scenes that they pore over, and the camera lingers over the young men’s blood-smeared deltoids, their triceps, their torsos.
JUST KIDDING. I mean, of course I’m kidding. Because, as usual, The Little Things is about a serial killer who preys on beautiful young women—and it’s their naked bodies we see throughout the film. What’s more, the two detectives working on the case are men—but not just men, men with wives, ex-wives, and daughters, men who look at the women in their lives and think, “As a father of daughters, as the husband to a wife, I must protect innocent young women at all costs.” (They don’t actually say those words, but they might as well.)
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m sick of this sh*t. Indeed, if I see one more movie or miniseries that starts with a Dead Girl in the Woods ™, I’m going to scream. And if we must see such things, I only want the crimes to be solved by women. Give me Top of the Lake or Unbelievable—both excellent shows, by the way. Hell, give me Law and Order: SVU—at least Captain Olivia Benson is a baller.
The film is set in 1990, for apparently no reason other than it was written in 1993, by John Lee Hancock, who also directs. Not quite sure why he chose to dust it off now, but here we are. The title, by the way, is a reference to the little, seemingly insignificant things that actually matter when one is solving a case—as well as the little things from the past that can eat away at us. (It just sounds like the title of a rom-com.)
The cast is good, at least. Denzel Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former detective, who is, in fact, haunted by his past. In his day, he was an excellent detective, the best in the biz. (Just once, I’d like to see a film about a mediocre detective.) We don’t know everything, but there was a case—another serial killer, who murdered prostitutes. Deke became dangerously obsessed with finding the killer—so much so that he ended up having a massive heart attack. We are also led to believe that in his pursuit of the killer, he did some less than above-board things (we don’t find out exactly what until the film’s end). The still unsolved case drove him out of the job and to nearby Kern County, where he now works as a deputy sheriff.
It’s when Deke is collecting evidence for a trial that he finds himself back in old his stomping grounds in L.A., where he’s mostly treated like an unsavory house guest. There, he meets the young and ambitious lead detective, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who’s working a case about a different serial killer—or is it? While Baxter maintains that no serial killer goes from murdering prostitutes to innocent young women (the film’s framing), Deke suggests that the earlier murders might have been a rehearsal for the main event. Either way, the two men team up to try to hunt down the killer. Deke even takes a “vacation” so he can work alongside Baxter in L.A.
Washington can play a decent man weighed down by regret in his sleep, which doesn’t mean we should take him for granted, of course. He’s excellent, as usual. Malek is an unusual choice to play Baxter—with his large eyes, high cheekbones, and clenched jaw, his face is almost too interesting to be wasted on a garden variety good guy. But that’s what he is. When we first meet Baxter, he’s having Deke’s car towed, which seems to set up an adversarial relationship between the two men. Quite the contrary. Baxter is as earnest as they come. In fact, while most of Deke’s old colleagues want nothing to do with him, it’s Baxter who wants to pick Deke’s brain, tap into his years of wisdom, learn from him. Yes, on top of everything else, The Little Things is a buddy film. (You get a trope! You get a trope! Everybody gets a trope!)
Baxter and Deke home in on a scuzzy, straggly-haired man who works at an appliance repair shop named Sparma (Jared Leto, of course). Sparma has a keen interest in police work and crime scenes. He collects newspaper clippings of old cases and even has a police scanner in his apartment. He’s turned on by serial killers—but does that mean he is one?
The Little Things doesn’t add anything particularly fresh or noteworthy to the serial killer genre. Indeed, even if it had been released in 1993 (with, let’s say, Gene Hackman and Dylan McDermott), it still wouldn’t have made much of a splash. It’s aggressively fine. Can we put this kind of film to bed already?
The Little Things is available in theaters and on HBO Max.