Denzel Washington and Rami Malek play police detectives on the trail of a serial killer in John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things, an unexpectedly engrossing procedural in the vein of ‘90s style police thrillers now streaming on HBO Max.
While the setup recalls familiar material from films like Copycat and The Bone Collector (which also starred Washington), the tone and themes of The Little Things are almost diametrically opposed to those earlier works. Instead of focusing on the mystery itself, this one is about the approach taken by the detectives, and the toll it takes on them.
Instead of the wizened detective we might expect, Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a one-time Los Angeles Sheriff’s Detective who has since been demoted to working as a Deputy on the outskirts of the city. That move occurred after Deke got too involved in a murder case, to the point of what one character terms a mental breakdown.
But in L.A. proper on a mission to fetch some evidence, Deke stumbles across the latest murder in the city. As luck would have it, he instantly notices some similarities with his previous case. Lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) insists he stick around; soon, the bodies start to pile up as Jim leans into Deke’s methodology against his supervisor’s advice.
The Little Things takes a sharp turn with the introduction of the suspect Deke and Jim zero in on: Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a self-described true crime fan who seems to revel in the attention the detectives give to him. Soon we have what feels like a familiar cat-and-mouse game between the detectives and their prime suspect… but there’s a lot more going on here than first meets the eye.
Washington, who gained a significant amount of weight for the role, is quite wonderful in The Little Things. Deke is a rich and complex character with a lot of shades of grey; the character plays to the actor’s strengths in both dramatic and thriller material, and Washington carries the movie. Leto, too, is excellent as the enigmatic creep in a role that feels like it was written only for him.
Malek feels miscast as the hotshot young detective on the lead in the case, but he’s especially good in the film’s climactic scenes. A rich supporting cast features some memorable work by Chris Bauer and Michael Hyatt as Deke’s colleagues from the past who, like him, are still carrying some scars.
The Little Things is based on a screenplay by director Hancock that has been kicking around since the 1990s and is also set during that time; presence of modern technology would have altered some key scenes, and indeed, may have rendered the whole genre obsolete.
But while the story in The Little Things resembles the kind of generic police thriller that Hollywood regularly churned out in the ‘90s, Hancock slyly weaves in more and more complex thematic material until we’ve come out with something entirely different.
While climactic scenes with the detectives and their suspect out in an isolated field explicitly recall David Fincher’s Se7en, the lasting impact of The Little Things is more along the lines of Zodiac.