If date night still existed and you and yours had gone to a proper cinema to see The Little Things –the new serial killer thriller starring Denzel Washington- chances are you’d spend the drive home ripping apart the film’s central mystery. One of you might declare the final twist not worth the long wait while the other might admit to being more attentive to the film’s L.A. old-school locations (Sam’s Char Burgers!) than the murder mystery the story’s two ace detectives are struggling to solve.
And in unison, you’d probably shout: “He’d have never gotten in that car!”
In the Warner Bros. release premiering on HBO Max today, Washington is Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Bakersfield deputy sheriff who heads to L.A. to retrieve evidence for a case. L.A. police headquarters is familiar territory for Deke, who spent 15 years as the city’s genius homicide cop until his last case went so far off the rails it prompted a mental breakdown and logistical retreat. At headquarters, he meets Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), a supremely confident young detective who insists Deke come along to view the fifth victim of a merciless killer.
At the crime scene, Jimmy bustles about, but Deke mostly stands still, as if breathing in the spiritual essence of both victim and killer. “He has his ways,” a veteran cop declares. Deke quickly spots the clue everyone else misses and in the days that follow, two or three more until a raggedy electrician named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) emerges as the chief suspect. Sparma, who enjoys taunting Deke and Jimmy with his crime-buff insights, has an alibi, but Deke becomes obsessed with his guilt, and soon, Jim does too.
Set in a cell-phone free 1990, The Little Things, written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) has a gripping opening sequence involving a young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) being chased in the desert by an unseen killer, but this isn’t a movie of high action. And it’s not exactly a tightly wound whodunit, either. Hancock, working from a script he reportedly wrote some 30 years ago, means for us to worry over the detective’s souls more than the ways and means of the killer.
Deke is haunted by his last case, which may be tied to this new one, and which flashbacks reveal to be the epic fail of his life. In the morgue, he says to the latest victim, “You knew him, didn’t you?” and isn’t surprised when the dead girl turns her head to look at him, a moment matched a few scenes later by the ghostly appearance of the other dead girls, who stare at Deke as if they know he’s going to fail them. Yes, Deke sees dead people, but Washington is such a master of heavy-hearted torment that ghosts seem reasonable, not silly.
Jimmy’s road to lifelong inner torment — the gift Deke brings — is poorly paved by the director, leaving Malek to play third act behaviors that make no sense to what we know of Jimmy (or any experienced cop). Jimmy’s supposed to be smart but in the home stretch, Hancock makes him seem dumb. If the script for The Little Things really is 30 years old, you’d think someone along the way might have mentioned to Hancock that he was selling his hero short, a sin not even the cleverest last-scene twist can redeem.