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'The Little Things' Is A Star-Studded, Old-School Serial Killer Thriller

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek are an unlikely pair on the hunt for a serial killer in <em>The Little Things. </em>
Denzel Washington and Rami Malek are an unlikely pair on the hunt for a serial killer in The Little Things.

It's been awhile since I've seen a new studio picture like The Little Things — a big, meaty, slickly made crime drama featuring a trio of Academy Award winners. That's partly because of COVID-19, which caused theaters to close 10 months ago and led the studios to postpone some of their biggest titles. But even if there wasn't a pandemic and The Little Things had been widely released in theaters as planned, it might still have played like a relic from an earlier moviemaking decade.

That's exactly what it is. The '90s were something of a renaissance era for serial-killer movies, and the director, John Lee Hancock, wrote this script back in 1993, two years after The Silence of the Lambs and two years before David Fincher's notorious shocker Se7en.

It's interesting to think how The Little Things might have fit into the genre if it had been made back then. But for various reasons, even though Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood both considered directing it, the movie never got off the ground. It was revived only a few years ago, now with Hancock in the director's chair. He appears to have made few changes to his script, which is still set in the '90s, probably because so much of the story depends on pay phones.

Denzel Washington plays Joe Deacon, also known as Deke, a former Los Angeles detective who now works as a sheriff's deputy in Bakersfield. But on a work-related trip down to L.A., he meets up with his old friends on the force and gets pulled into a major case. His unlikely partner is a young hotshot named Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek. In typical buddy-cop fashion, they get off on the wrong foot but soon settle into a comfortable groove, with Deke playing the grizzled mentor to Baxter's ambitious up-and-comer.

They're trying to solve the murders of several young women, the latest of whom has been found in a rundown flophouse — one of many reminders here of an older, less gentrified Los Angeles. The police make a thorough sweep of the scene, but it's Deke who finds the evidence that leads them to a repairman, Albert Sparma, who becomes their prime suspect. He's played by Jared Leto, who sports long, stringy hair and a prosthetic nose, and who gives a performance of such calculated creepiness, he might as well be wearing an "Arrest Me" sign.

But while Sparma may look like their man, Deke and Baxter have a hard time finding the evidence that would prove it. It's never clear if Sparma is the culprit or just a true-crime buff who enjoys toying with the police. Over time, the uncertainty begins to eat away at Baxter — in much the same way it once ate away at Deke, who left the LAPD years ago after another unsolved case nearly drove him mad. If The Little Things has an obvious kinship with Se7en, it also seems to anticipate another David Fincher triumph, Zodiac, in which a criminal investigation becomes a corrosive personal obsession.

The script has its creaky, tin-eared moments. I could have done with fewer of Deke and Baxter's strained wisecracks, and there's something a little obvious about their gradual realization of how similar they are under the skin. The forensic details are as familiar as they are gruesome: You've seen it all before, from the blood-spattered crime scenes and nude corpses on autopsy tables to the wall of evidence covered with maps and photos.

But it's worth remembering that Hancock conceived this story nearly 30 years ago, when these images weren't the clichés they are now. The Little Things may look like a retread, but it feels more like a time capsule, a weirdly enveloping trip down memory lane. I got wrapped up in its slowly unraveling twists, and in the rapport between the two leads; Washington is all too convincing as a dogged crime solver who isn't afraid to go rogue when needed. He's also one of the few movie stars, of course, who's as popular now as he was in the '90s.

Hancock himself has come a long way since then; he has a sturdy command of craft, as he's demonstrated in the other movies he's directed, like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks. The Little Things tells a much darker story, but Hancock proves a better fit than you might think. He's good at quickening your pulse, and his attention to details — the "little things" of the title — slowly draws you in. There's nothing comforting about this grim, existentially unsettling movie, but its patient, old-school pleasures provide their own kind of satisfaction.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.