Denzel Washington stars in a serial killer procedural that's desperate to be Zodiac but lacks atmosphere and directorial control
At what point does an homage become an outright rip-off, and can an outright rip-off be a good film in its own right? These are questions that play in your mind all the way through John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things, a film that tries so hard to be a David Fincher procedural that you'd hope he was given a consulting fee. Riffing on Zodiac and Seven (and occasionally the first season of True Detective), The Little Things can’t escape the monumental shadow of Fincher’s work, though, and winds up drawing attention to its own comparative shortcomings.
Set in '90s California, The Little Things finds disgraced former LAPD detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) drafted into a serial killer investigation by his hotshot replacement Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Women are being drugged, bound, and killed, before their bodies are dropped off miles from the murder location, an MO that is familiar to the self-destructively obsessive Deacon, who is haunted by the ghosts of victims he couldn’t save. It’s a pretty bog-standard murder mystery plot, one that takes a bit too long to really get going.
This slowness is a key weakness for The Little Things, which actually has more complex things on its mind than murder, but stumbles when it comes to integrating them into the story. As the suspect-less Baxter becomes ever more despairing, he starts fixating on creepy repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a self-confessed “crime buff” with a tangential relation to some of the murders, starting to sink into the same all-consuming hole that swallowed up Deacon. It’s in its study of this obsession, and how weird it can make someone, that The Little Things hits its stride, but the clunky gears of the actual murder plot keep getting in the way – a situation exacerbated by a horribly muddy sound mix that makes a lot of dialogue almost impossible to hear.
Each phase of the investigation seems to, essentially, pay tribute to a different icon of the serial killer genre, but this mostly ends up making The Little Things into a feeble recreation. It lacks the deep characterisation of Seven, the incredible atmosphere of Zodiac, and the dark humour that grounded True Detective, and there’s not enough to recommend it ahead of a rewatch of any of those.
Washington can do this kind of role in his sleep and, while he doesn’t give anything like a bad performance, he’s definitely not giving it his all here, though he does develop a fun rapport with Malek. Leto, meanwhile, has a better time, leaning into the pulpiness of the material and giving a broad but sinister turn aided by a pronounced limp, a fat suit, and long hair at maximum greasiness.
Set mainly at dusk and night, there is plenty of evocative camerawork to enjoy, from the sickly greens of a late-night downtown stakeout to a dust-strewn quarry lit only by car headlights, and Hancock does a great job of turning California’s highways into hostile, alien environments, often eerily empty and always loaded with threat. An early car chase is genuinely frightening, turning the freedom of the open road into something sinister. There’s a vastness and loneliness in The Little Things’s best moments that lends a powerful sense of hopelessness to proceedings – no matter what Deacon and Baxter achieve, this is a place where people will always disappear.
Sadly, these more affecting and exciting scenes are drowned out by the remarkable lack of imagination elsewhere. Originality isn’t an overly vital requirement in a police procedural, and there can be great joy in a well-executed take on a familiar tale, but to so openly invite comparison to all-timers like Zodiac requires a movie to fire on all cylinders to compete. Despite a powerhouse cast and some slick visuals, The Little Things ultimately winds up feeling a lot smaller than the films it's trying to be.
The Little Things is available on digital platforms from 12 February.Where to watch