The Little Things is a procedural crime thriller in the vein of Seven, Zodiac, and Prisoners.1 It shares with those works a tension built from its characters' monomania, as Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) seek a serial killer in early 1990s Los Angeles. But it lacks the straight-ahead narrative framework of those films. Instead of focusing on the slow exhaustion and eventual disintegration of its main characters, the film spends too much time hinting at some trauma in Deacon’s past.
This trauma—Deacon’s accidental shooting of a surviving victim of the potential killer and the ensuing concealment—is the central revelation at the heart of the film. His work to find the actual killer has been his expiation. Narratively, it doesn’t work.
By the point that Deacon’s past is revealed, the movie has already moved on to Baxter’s descent. His investigation of the main suspect Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) has given way to a spiral of neglect and misplaced belief. Sparma leads him to the location of an alleged victim’s body. Baxter digging holes in a futile search for the victim is a clever metaphor for the willfulness and blindness that has driven the investigation.
But Baxter’s actions barely correspond to any perceivable motive. Maybe he’s starstruck by Deacon’s skill, maybe he’s an absent father, maybe he’s a sociopath. None is persuasive. Baxter’s fall from meticulous up-and-coming detective to Ahab of L.A. in a matter of a few days seems barely plausible when framed against the events in Deacon’s history that drive him. And the story is not the only place where the film is clumsy.
It also squanders the potential of its period setting. It barely looks like the nineties. The police station has a bizarre interior architecture—angular, bright, glassy. It looks like a Silicon Valley start-up. And the Los Angeles of this film is depopulated. Other than the eventual victims of the film’s elusive killer, there are no pedestrians out at night, hardly any cars. It looks like a studio backlot.2
The screenplay was written around 1993. Writer-director John Lee Hancock: “When I wrote it, it was a contemporary piece. Now, all these years later, it’s a period piece; 1990, when the story was set…” Elsewhere in the same interview, Hancock strains to point out that the script was actually written before Seven. More here: https://deadline.com/2020/12/the-little-things-john-lee-hancock-30-year-odyssey-denzel-washington-rami-malek-jared-leto-hbo-max-controversy-1234660476/ ↩︎
Some of these visual shortcomings may be attributable to the long gestation period that preceded the movie’s production. But Hancock’s hagiography of Ray Kroc, The Founder, was set in the 1950s and did not suffer the same lack of care. ↩︎