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‘The Little Things’ Is From Another Time

The Denzel Washington serial killer thriller—now streaming on HBO Max—is a strange viewing experience; uniquely idiosyncratic and derivative, for uniquely specific reasons

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

In 1993, Clint Eastwood directed A Perfect World, a lyrical, tragic drama about an escaped convict who takes a young boy hostage while on the lam in 1960s Texas. Although structured as a procedural, the film gains its power from the way it depicts and empathizes with trauma; it’s a weighty movie because everybody in it has a heavy heart. It’s also long on folksy dialogue—“cowboy colloquialisms,” in the words of an FBI agent played by Laura Dern—which come courtesy of a then-fledgling screenwriter with an all-American name: John Lee Hancock, who would go on to work again with Eastwood again on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Since then, Hancock has become a director himself. He specializes in broad, homespun dramas: The Rookie, The Alamo, and The Blind Side, a surprise blockbuster that won Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. Pro sports, patriotism, and big, crowd-pleasing emotions: by yoking old-fashioned craftsmanship to inspirational shamelessness, Hancock has carved out a career as a solid Hollywood hand. But things could have been very different. Last week, in an interview with Deadline, the director revealed that the script for his new movie The Little Things, which stars Denzel Washington as an investigator on the trail of a brutal serial killer, was written around the same time as A Perfect World—and originally earmarked as a project for Clint. It was also supposedly presented to Steven Spielberg, who, according to Hancock, “felt it was too dark” as a follow-up to Schindler’s List.

Film history is full of what-ifs—rewrites, cancellations, and complications that keep some movies from being made the way they were intended, or from even being made at all. If we’re ranking these, there are certainly bigger ones than “What if Steven Spielberg made a movie in between the Jurassic Park movies?” but now that Hancock has gone and made The Little Things—the darkest movie of a mostly wholesome career—the fact that its script dates back 30 years is intriguing. What looks at a glance like a throwback to the kind of lurid, self-contained genre movie they don’t really make anymore was, at one point, ahead of the curve.

“I wrote [the script] before Se7en,” Hancock notes in the Deadline interview, pointedly invoking David Fincher’s 1995 breakthrough in an attempt to make it seem like The Little Things isn’t some kind of rip-off. Which, fair enough: There are a lot of Se7en rip-offs. Few contemporary genre movies cast a longer shadow than Fincher’s noir-tinged masterpiece, a film whose grim, sepulchral beauty and nihilistic bleakness were a breath of fresh (if poisonous) air in a Hollywood zeitgeist suffocated by middlebrow blandness. Even now, Se7en remains a style book for R-rated multiplex fare.

The Little Things, which is well-acted, slickly produced, and strategically frustrating, isn’t going to become a style book or even necessarily stand the test of time. But it’s not a throwaway, either. On the grim terms set forth by its writer-director, it’s gripping and watchable; the darkness that spooked Spielberg illuminates Hancock’s desire to sculpt something serious out of the pulp.

The fact that the finished product is supposedly “85-90 percent what was written in 1993,” suggests a filmmaker proudly committed to his ideas, and it’s fun to imagine the alternate timeline where The Little Things hit theaters first and Se7en ended up looking like a rip-off—or maybe even a mid-’90s version of the film in which Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey were cast for the roles played by Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto in 2021. That’s three Oscar winners, if you’re counting, and one of the paradoxical problems with The Little Things is its awareness of its own A-list pedigree. It’s not an innocuous movie, but it is a slightly muted one—a classy effort in a genre that’s better when it’s a bit disreputable. The Silence of the Lambs was an awards magnet, but it’s not like Jonathan Demme sacrificed pulpy propulsion in the process; meanwhile, what made Se7en so thrilling was the feeling that despite its studio backing it was somehow unsafe, that even when the movie was using clichés and conventions, real danger lurked in the background.

Hancock isn’t a master like Demme or a great stylist like Fincher. In fact, he’s the opposite of a provocateur: His style in a movie like The Blind Side is the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug. Still, it’s always fascinating to see filmmakers operating outside of their comfort zones, and The Little Things starts promisingly with a creepy nighttime set piece on a dark stretch of California highway where a young woman is chased—first in her car and then on foot—by an unseen predator. The quiet, anxious, middle-of-nowhere vibe is potent (a closed but still glowing gas station is like something out of a lonely nightmare) and even the girl’s seeming deliverance after flagging a passing 18-wheeler is made ambiguous via a hard cutaway that leaves the exact outcome of the episode in doubt. We’re relieved, but also confused.

Good thrillers are defined by such withholding—by delaying absolute clarity for as long as possible without descending into dishonesty or incoherence. The Little Things spends a lot of time—probably too much—establishing that its protagonist, Kern County deputy Joseph “Deke” Deacon (Washington), has done something that he can’t live down. Deke is a law-enforcement lifer who’s seen it all and wishes he hadn’t, a type that Hancock likes: Eastwood’s character in A Perfect World was similarly written. Whatever Deke’s done, it’s left him slumped and desolate, a pariah and an outsider; sent to Los Angeles on a routine departmental assignment, he invites a mix of pity and skepticism from his former LAPD colleagues as well as his ex-wife, who doesn’t seem up for small talk.

Deke’s uneasy homecoming coincides with a police search for an elusive serial killer, a twist that would have been a cliché in 1993 but feels downright hackneyed in 2021—as does the idea that the character is some kind of brilliant, intuitive, Will Graham–style investigator. (The Little Things is set in the early 1990s, and so features the pleasure of analog crime-scene-investigation techniques and technology—and also suspense scenes conducted without cell phones). Invited along on a call by by Detective Jim Baxter (Malek)—a departmental hotshot who views the older man with wary skepticism and respect—Deke gets drawn into the case, leaving us to wonder whether and how this new set of slayings, with their array of artfully posed corpses (one beneath a period-appropriate flyer for a No Doubt concert) connect both to the film’s cold open and the character’s mysterious, troubled backstory.

At this point, Washington can play pretty much anything: a gifted, melancholy, bitter virtuoso bemoaning the miles on his professional odometer and hoping to retire soon isn’t too much of a stretch. There’s something to be said for actors who are good enough to take for granted, and while Washington’s performance here won’t make any lists of his all-time best work, there’s an effortlessness to his presence that exposes Malek’s straining. Hancock intends The Little Things to be partially about the clashing styles and worldviews of two dialectically opposed detectives (old and young; broken and idealistic) who gradually become aligned, but Malek’s wide-eyed, seething approach (as shticky as Mr. Robot) suggests an actor trying to find a way into a boring role instead of genuinely pulling something out of it.

The third point of The Little Things actorly triangle is Leto’s Albert Sparma, a repairman who Deke identifies early on as a plausible candidate to be the killer. This hunch is based on a combination of circumstantial evidence and the fact that Albert is almost impossibly sleazy and weird; when Deke starts poking around his home, his quarry seems to be flaunting his guilt. Leto, who can be as annoying when discussing his craft as when practicing it, has already compared his character to the Joker. (Pause for groans.) To his credit, though, there is a similar cartoon stylization to his work here, and it’s actually more effective outside of an explicitly comic-book context. It’s a gimmicky performance—low, hollow voice; greasy, long hair; thousand-yard stare—but effective on its own perversely campy terms. Albert clearly gets off on being mysterious (among other things) and Hancock’s most inspired decision is to keep him hanging around the edges of the movie so that we can scrutinize him along with the detectives en route to a final act when he takes center stage (shades, again, of Se7en).

The last section of The Little Things pivots precariously on the theme of uncertainty while deliberately denying us certain satisfactions. The tension between Hancock’s instincts as an easy-watching populist and his impulse for subversion is what makes the film interesting despite its flaws and over-familiarity. There is a stretch of about 20 minutes near the end that’s steeped in a deliciously anticipatory dread, that vibrates with the same morbid promise as Se7en or even The Vanishing (the most unsettling serial-killer movie of them all). Where things go from there will probably strike some viewers as disastrously anticlimactic, and it may well be. But to Hancock’s credit, that’s not quite the same thing as a cop-out.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.