There’s a self-serious portent to drab serial killer thriller The Little Things, a smug sense of grandiosity informing us that it’s not only more substantial than the average stalk-n-stab schlock, but that it’s going somewhere we might not expect, ending with gravity rather than gristle. To its credit, the film, from The Blind Side writer-director John Lee Hancock, does find itself in slightly unconventional territory in its rushed finale but it’s not a place that’s either satisfying or smart enough to warrant the hushed solemnity that precedes it. It’s a film trapped between a low- and a highbrow version of a story we know all too well, landing firmly in the middle of the road.
With elements of Seven and Zodiac in the mix, arguably the film it most resembles is Insomnia, both the Norwegian original and Christopher Nolan’s excellent remake, its very title recalling a key recurring line about focusing on the small things during an investigation (Hancock insists any comparisons are coincidental with the first draft of the script written back in 1993). In what feels like an adaptation of a potboiler but is actually an original story, deputy sheriff “Deke” (Denzel Washington) finds himself unavoidably dragged back into the thrust of a case he’s not supposed to be involved in (after an admittedly effective Silence of the Lambs-esque cold open). Once a celebrated member of the force, with age he’s found himself pushed to the back, lumped with grunt work over anything more rewarding. But when another young woman is murdered, he’s unable to resist, much to the chagrin of Jimmy (Rami Malek), the point guy on the case. The story also interweaves with an unsolved case from Deke’s past as well as a local stranger (Jared Leto) who may or may not be involved.
Maybe if Hancock’s film had been produced back in the early 90s, it would have at least felt like a more admirably serious-minded riposte to a sub-genre that often devolves into silliness. But at a time when even small screen procedurals have perma-frowned detectives who spend more time haunted by their past than actually solving crimes in the present, it all feels a little too familiar and a little too minor. As a slow, meditative character-driven drama, it’s too shallow and as a dark, disturbing serial killer thriller, it’s too boring and so quite who this film is for remains a bigger mystery than the one at its centre.
As probably the most reliable leading man currently working in Hollywood, Washington can put a shine on even the dullest of material and while he’s no doubt stretched here, he avoids a mere sleepwalk and singlehandedly helps muster up just enough interest to drag us through. His character is mostly standard issue, but it’s a sturdy, accomplished turn, the kind that only he can do quite this well, yet his other two Oscar-winning co-stars struggle. Playing a dogged LAPD detective with the same otherworldly strangeness that won him plaudits for Mr Robot and Bohemian Rhapsody (and makes him a perfect choice for Bond villain), Malek is awkwardly ill-suited for the role, a performance so discordant, it makes one question the actor’s long-term versatility and just how Hollywood will best make use of him going forward. While Leto certainly looks the part of “potential killer of women” with his pale sunken skin and greasy long hair, his line delivery is so embarrassingly unsubtle that he might as well have walked off the set of a Hammer horror parody, never convincing us that he’s playing anything other than an Evil Movie Villain. That juicy killer-cop interplay, the spiky cat and mouse game that drives films such as this, just isn’t really there, Hancock struggling to differentiate his film from the many others that have come before, as admirably hard as Washington tries.
That aforementioned ending, while theoretically interesting, just doesn’t land with the impact Hancock seems to think it does, a big swing that misses. Part of me admires him for it, but it’s such an empty coda presented with such weight, urging us to take what’s mostly a rather rote serial killer movie with awards-worthy seriousness, that it ultimately annoys (what it says about cops is also rather uneasy at this, or frankly any, moment). There are little things here that work but the big problems are impossible to ignore.