What the Hell Is Denzel Washington Doing in This Bloody Mess?
“The Little Things,” premiering Jan. 29 on HBO Max, is a lame “Seven” knockoff with none of the thrills, and beneath a cinema giant like Denzel.
The ghost of Seven lives on with The Little Things, as does Denzel Washington’s search for the type of great serial killer thriller he missed out on when he turned down the lead role in David Fincher’s 1995 genre classic. John Lee Hancock’s film (premiering Jan. 29 in theaters, as well as on HBO Max for its first month) is deeply indebted in both style and plot particulars to that predecessor, although unfortunately for it—and its headliner—its modest suspense is largely offset by the fact that there’s nothing substantial or especially original lurking beneath its eerie exterior.
Once again attending to the serial-killer itch he repeatedly scratched in the second half of the ‘90s with Virtuosity, Fallen, and The Bone Collector, Washington stars as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a deputy sheriff working and living in rural Kern County, California. Deke is a lonely divorcee who hasn’t seen his kids in forever, listens to classic love songs, and spends his days tending to petty crimes in his sleepy jurisdiction. That all changes when he’s sent to retrieve a piece of evidence from Los Angeles, which it turns out is his old stomping ground. In drips and drabs, The Little Things reveals that Deke was a superstar homicide detective in the big city, but left under somewhat infamous (if also semi-enigmatic) circumstances. Now back in town, he’s greeted with a mixture of suspicion and hostility. His appearance also piques the curiosity of new celebrity detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek), who’s presently trying to solve a series of related slayings.
It’s not long before Jimmy is asking Deke to accompany him to his latest crime scene to lend a helping hand, thereby setting up a young white hotshot/older Black vet dynamic straight out of Seven, whose aesthetics are then mimicked when the duo arrive at the bloodbath in question and find that the power’s been cut, thus forcing them to navigate the interior space via flashlight. The film seems to be aware that it’s following in Fincher’s footsteps—its story is even set in the 1990s—but it doesn’t really care that it’s treading well-worn ground, nor does it show much interest in putting a new spin on its chosen template. Instead, it merely soldiers onward into familiar territory, with Deke choosing to use his vacation time to aid Jimmy’s investigation of a fiend who likes to hunt single women, bind, gag and execute them, and then pose their bodies in suggestive ways.
There’s nothing novel about The Little Things’ villain, whose BTK-esque m.o. is uninspired as far as such stories go. Writer/director Hancock puts less emphasis on creeping audiences out with a uniquely unhinged maniac than on dramatizing the interior state of Deke, a man whose past mistakes have left him in shambles. Deke worked a prior case so hard that he achieved the ruinous hat trick of suspension from the force, divorce and triple-bypass surgery, and in flashback snippets that strain to tantalize, he’s seen working that years-earlier homicide, which involved his former super-religious captain Carl Farris and compassionate coroner Flo Dunigan (Michael Hyatt). Now, he’s a haunted man—a condition that Hancock literalizes by having the spirits of that old crime’s victims visit him in bed late at night.
The Little Things’ lack of subtlety extends to its depiction of Deke and Jimmy’s developing similarities, both of them troubled sleuths whose commitment to their job borders on the self-destructive. Malek embodies Jimmy with straightforward sternness and tenacity, but he’s lacking the interior volatility and edginess that the part requires. For genuine live-wire energy, Hancock turns to Jared Leto, whose appliance repairman Albert Sparma becomes Deke and Jimmy’s prime suspect. A loner with stringy hair, a matching beard, and big, dark, teasing eyes that seem to have sunken into his gaunt face, Sparma more than looks the serial-killer part. And when he divulges that he’s an aficionado of such monsters—as well as proves himself an individual who gets a giddy thrill out of playing with the cops by pretending to be a madman—Deke and Jimmy take his bait and fixate on him as their guy.
Deke and Jimmy’s single-minded focus on Sparma leads to further implicating discoveries, as well as a cat-and-mouse game in which the potential murderer seems to be pulling all the strings. Thanks to a taunting Leto performance that resides just on the placid side of insanity, The Little Things generates sporadic unease from the question of Sparma’s true nature (sociopathic mastermind or cosplaying Richard Ramirez fanboy?), and whether he’s responsible for not only this current reign of terror but also the carnage that’s plagued Deke’s conscience for years. The film’s highlight is a sequence in which Deke tails Sparma to a recent crime scene, only to have the lunatic toy with him by switching sides of the highway. Yet by focusing on Sparma’s unnerving mysteriousness at the expense of procedural-style, forensics-based inquiry, any real intrigue is neutered, leaving the proceedings a guessing game as to whether or not Leto’s weirdo is a wannabe or the real deal.
Washington brings his usual gravity and nuance to the role of Deke, his hunched posture and coiled physicality suggesting both the emotional and psychological burdens he’s shouldering and the frustrated rage he’s trying to keep at bay. There’s a weighty sadness and desperation to the way Washington moves through the frame, even during those moments when he races into action or snaps by letting his suppressed fury get the better of him. He’s as charismatic as ever and as moving as the material will allow him to be, but that’s not enough, since Deke’s inner torment is too obvious to strike a genuinely resonant chord. Moreover, eventual revelations about the cop’s guilt don’t deepen the character, coming across as merely standard-issue pieces of a pedestrian puzzle.
The Little Things’ finale hinges on a calamity brought about by unbelievable decision-making that’s so out of character for the person in question, it’s hard to buy anything the film sells from that point onward. However, even worse than that twist is a climax that goes out of its way to again channel Seven in terms of setting, situation, and potential threats. All that’s missing is a delivery van dropping off a momentous box.