The Little Things Is a Twisty Thriller About the Inner Lives of Bad Cops
It’s a comfortable throwback to 1990s crime films. Too comfortable.
The Little Things is a comfortable film about an uncomfortable subject: bad cops and how they feel about their misdeeds. If anything, given its subject matter, it's a little too comfortable.
Ostensibly a throwback neo-noir crime thriller, the movie stars Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as a pair of mismatched police officers on the trail of a killer; the prime suspect is played with creepy affect by Jared Leto. But the movie is less interested in solving its central murder mystery than it is in plumbing the depths of darkness in police work. It's an intriguing if not entirely successful riff on the cat-and-mouse cops-and-killers genre that was so prevalent in the 1990s. But it's hard to say too much about it without spoiling the twisty, genre-fracturing ending. You've been warned.
What makes this movie so comforting isn't just the powerhouse trio of leads, or even the return of the "slow burn Denzel Washington R-rated thriller," an actor-specific subgenre that has been paying dividends to viewers for decades now. It's the broad familiarity of the package—the stars, the material, the moody photography and score, the carefully calibrated mix of pulpy premise and modestly elevated execution.
It's an ordinary studio movie, the kind that used to play year-round in multiplexes, even if only as a backdrop to the parade of superhero blockbusters, back when multiplexes were still a thing. It's also a throwback to the '90s, and films like Seven and Fallen (which also starred Washington). Not only is it set in that decade, conveniently omitting the possibility of cell phone conversations, but the script, by director John Lee Hancock, was written around that time too. At various points directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg were attached to direct; it has the stripped-down, craftsmanlike feel of that era's studio fare. Watching it on a big screen at home, from the comfort of your couch, on a chilly winter evening, is like bundling up with a mug of hot chocolate and a soft blanket. It's cinematic hygge.
Technically, you can still see it at a theater, provided theaters are open where you live; as with so many excursions these days, you'll have to get permission from your local mayor or governor to watch Washington on the big screen. But for those, like me, who live in areas where theaters are still dark, you can also see it on HBO Max, as part of Warner Bros.' novel plan to release its entire slate of 2021 films direct to streaming.
As for the film itself, well, it's a mixed bag. After a tense opening sequence in which a driver whose face we never see menaces a young woman, the story follows Joe "Deke" Deacon (Washington) as he teams up with Malek's Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) Detective Jim Baxter to hunt down a serial killer—and perhaps solve an old case of his own. Leto enters the scene as the prime suspect, Albert Sparma, a creepazoid crime buff with grunge rocker hair and a snide way of teasing the cops.
The three leads are predictably excellent: Malek brings a quirky, out-of-place precision to his young up-and-comer cop. Washington's command of the screen is now so total that it's easy to take for granted, even in a relatively underdeveloped role as a psychologically frail cop haunted by a mysterious dark past. But it's Leto who gives the most interesting performance as an outsized oddball who is just weird enough to keep you guessing. He certainly knows a lot about the crimes, and late in the film he even offers to take Malek's character to the body of a missing girl presumed to have been murdered by the same killer.
Is Sparma, in the tradition of so many '90s-era serial killer films, just messing with the detectives' heads to make a point before revealing his master plan? Did he kill them all and bury their bodies in the desert? The answer is almost certainly not.
Instead of a last-act standoff with a serial killer, The Little Things switches gears in its final act when Baxter kills Sparma in a fit of rage after Sparma takes the head games one step too far. Deke helps Baxter cover up his crime, and it's revealed that Deke committed a deadly error himself, killing one of the victims he was investigating, then working with other cops to cover it up.
Near the end, Deke sends Baxter a red hair barrette, implying to Baxter that it was found in Sparma's belongings, and signaling that Sparma was the killer, making Baxter's murder in some sense just. Yet as it turns out, even this is a lie: In the movie's final scene, we see that Deke has merely purchased a barrette and sent it to Baxter in order to set the detective's mind at ease, sparing him the psychological torture that wrecked Deke's life.
Looked at one way, The Little Things is an exercise in upending genre expectations: The serial killer behind the string of murders is never revealed. The satisfaction of catching the bad guy that a genre film like this implicitly promises is never delivered. Indeed, it's constructed as a kind of argument against that sort of unambiguous fictional justice and the catharsis it provides; Deke's actions, in the end, are designed to provide the illusion of satisfaction, a convenient story to ease Baxter's fears.
Looked at another way, the movie does find its killers—but they're not spooky mass murderers. They're cops who make bad decisions in heated moments that result in innocent people dying. Understood this way, the detectives played by Washington and Malek aren't the heroes, but the villains, the killers who got themselves off without any consequence beyond an overhang of guilt. Indeed, the movie makes subtle efforts to connect both of their characters to the killer who stalks the young woman in the opening scene, shooting their shoes and boots with the same sort of gloomy foreboding.
The problem is the movie doesn't quite know how or whether to fully commit to this view; it waffles on its nominal indictment of the cops, playing them in most ways as essentially sympathetic. It's an intriguing choice, and one might argue that it's justified by perspective; that is, after all, how these cops see themselves.
But it's also a bit of a cheat—a failed effort to have it both ways. One issue is that the detectives themselves are both relatively underdeveloped as characters; it's hard to say the movie is an attempt to see things their way when it shows so little interest in who they are outside of the glum mechanics of their detective work. Perhaps some of that was cut; at a little over two hours, the movie already proceeds at a somewhat plodding pace.
Another issue is that Hancock's script is only interested in its detectives, and not the broader social and personal consequences of their misdeeds. It wants to indict its bad cops without quite showing what happens to anyone else after they've done wrong.
There's an interesting idea or two lurking somewhere in the screenplay for The Little Things, and the trio of leading men added enough big-screen star power to hold my attention. The movie's basic cinematic comforts are real enough. But I wish it had explored the darkness of its ideas about cops, killers, and thrillers more thoroughly. A movie like this shouldn't be quite so comforting to watch.