The Little Things, the new thriller from writer-director John Lee Hancock, is set in 1990. Except for the narrative convenience of removing cellphones as an everyday tool for the law enforcement personnel, there’s no obvious reason to have this scenario play out some thirty in the years in the past, so I’ve concocted a theory. Maybe Hancock chose that year because it places his film comfortably ahead of the spate of nineteen-nineties Hollywood offerings that set weary, haunted officers, detectives, and agents on the trail of theatrically creative serial killers. Placed on a strict chronology of cinematic fiction, The Little Things can’t be derivative of, for example, David Fincher’s Seven, released in 1995, if it actually takes place five years earlier. That’s science!
The Little Things stars Denzel Washington, who participated in the previously noted nineties boom with the likes of Fallen and The Bone Collector. Here he plays Joe Deacon, a deputy sheriff in a small California community who’s dispatched by his chief to retrieve some evidence from his former place of employ, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He’s drawn into an investigation presided over by a young hotshot detective (Rami Malek), drawing on his dormant skills as a tracker of mass murderers. The mismatched duo, with Joe working off the books, narrow the focus of their investigation to a scruffy gent named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), mainly, it seems, because he’s creepy. As Albert taunts his pursuers, the suspicion transforms into obsession, precisely the sort of myopic self-destruction that led to Joe’s earlier exit from big-city crime solving.
For all its familiarity, The Little Things has the makings of a taut, terse thriller. Hancock opts instead to make it slack and bloated. Although logic isn’t a valued commodity in The Little Things, its lethargic pace makes the various grim turns of fate easy to predict. The inability to tighten the filmmaking extends to the shape of the performances. Washington’s initial explorations of ambiguity and vulnerability in his character are cast aside for bland fervency, and Malek pinballs between beaming arrogance and pained confusion, with no spectrum assembled between the two extremes. Leto is the only one on screen mustering up anything interesting, but even his role is more contrivance than fully realized character.
My notion that Hancock set his film in a time before other serial-killer thrillers is admittedly silly. That tang of goofiness isn’t the theory’s main flaw, though. See, I was watching movies in 1990, and I can attest that The Little Things would have seen hackneyed then, too.