Ahh, the serial killer movie. Whether it’s the sombre and protracted threat of mystery thriller-cum-character studies like Se7en and Memories of Murder or wonderfully scuzzy action thrillers where the murderer’s identity is known from the outset, such as Dirty Harry and Blue Steel, there has always been something eminently addictive about works that address the phenomenon of these horrendous dirt-bags who roam around engaging in the apex of antisocial behaviour. The habitual grisliness of proceedings provokes the fascination of many normative psyches, although it’s perfectly understandable that a great many people would rather leave it alone altogether, be it in art or even news media. At any rate, our minds naturally look for patterns when confronted with it, both in terms of mystery immersion and attempting to rationalise how our fellow homo sapiens could do such diabolical things.
As a cinematic formula, there is still a generous amount of meat on the bone providing that screenwriters and directors know their arse from their elbow when it comes to substantive characterisation, effective dialogue, absorbing and unpredictable narrative developments and using the landscape and its players to their full potential. Unfortunately, John Lee Hancock’s latest venture The Little Things fails to come together in every regard despite some teasing.
It’s October 1990. Tina Salvatore (Sofia Vassilieva) is a young woman bulleting down an L.A. highway one night, singing her heart out to the B-52’s tune Roam (replace it with American Girl by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and it seems weirdly familiar, doesn’t it?) without a care in the world. Suddenly spooked by a creepy-looking vehicle driving dangerously close, Tina frantically hurries to a nearby gas station only to find it closed, the creepy vehicle’s driver having disembarked with duct tape and other horribly injurious looking objects in tow. Running through a field, Tina manages to flag down a truck driver and escape her pursuer, but it’s a close call indeed.
A short while later, Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), commonly known as Deke, is assigned to collect homicide evidence from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Deke is considered something of a legend among the personnel here given his many years as a brilliant detective, his obsession with a particular case leading to the deterioration of family life and health problems. It’s been five years since he’s seen any of his old colleagues and they all appear to be considerably more enthused by his presence than the man himself.
Girls are going missing around L.A. and corpses start showing up bearing identical causes of death, the LASD appointing the too-cool-for-school detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) to lead the case. Initially crossing paths in a disagreeable fashion, Baxter is familiar with Deke’s reputation and impulsively requests his attendance during their latest crime scene investigation, hoping the seasoned older cop might give him some pointers. Deke notices similarities between this murder and an old case ‘from up North’.
Having initially summoned Deke out of an obnoxious attempt to humour himself, Baxter grows deeply concerned when more young girls show up dead with a similar modus operandi. Learning of Deke’s troubled personal life and curious to know more about the case ‘up North’ that drove him crazy, Baxter begins to develop a camaraderie with and deep respect for Deke as the latter uses his vacation time to help Baxter investigate the killings. As the two men get to know one another and talk about shop and life on a wider scale, Deke begins to get suspicious about Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a lank-haired oddball who works at a repair store close to where the murders have taken place. As they tail this furtive freak, Deke and Baxter are taken to the limit in their quest for justice and closure.
There is essentially nothing here that you haven’t seen a thousand times before. Although it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to criticise the performances of Washington, Ramek and Leto per se, there must still be reconciliation with the fact that three demonstrably talented guys have been given next to nothing to work with. You have the over-the-hill burnout cop who left a detective post for a lower-stress position elsewhere, the upstart detective whose irritating narcissism gives way to a deeper humanity and humility, and the two-dimensional weirdo loner who couldn’t possibly not be the guy…or could he?
No amount of sincerity and effort on the part of the actors can redeem flat and cliched dialogue, twists that haven’t been earned, and frankly boring interludes of hackneyed character development. Washington is chock full of world-weary aphorisms as Malek balances cocksure douchebaggery with solemn edification, Leto walking the line somewhere between Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and Milton from Office Space as he spits passive-aggressive and sadistically cryptic taunts at our heroes.
John Schwartzman’s cinematography has a certain polish and deftness that kept my zeal from totally diminishing while slogging through scenes that felt largely like filler material from a third-rate police procedural show but, in the final analysis, it’s attempting to stand on the same platform as Zodiac without the actual goods to back it up. The soundtrack boggled my brain in no small measure, going from admittedly effective use of the B-52’s in the opening sequence to Aaron Neville, Etta James, Len Boone and The Paris Sisters, songs that feel intrinsically better suited to a Scorsese epic than a lightweight and super-archetypal police thriller, where they are nothing short of jarring. There have been several critics unfavourably comparing the film to Se7en, and while it’s easy to see the parallels in the Washington/Malek pairing, there’s no other discernible crossover. If it was trying to capture the feel of Freeman and Pitt’s intellectual and spiritual plunge into the abyss, it failed miserably.
Despite a great cast and flashes of intrigue, The Little Things is ultimately unable to surmount a tired script that offers absolutely nothing new and tries to emulate vastly superior pictures. It is neither entertaining nor thought-provoking and, as the credits rolled, I sat there pondering what the point was. It would be in your interest to let this one slide.