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All Serial-Killer Movies Should Take Place in the Pre-Cellphone Era

Between smartphones, the internet, and massive databases, fictional detectives have it pretty easy these days. But movies set in the late 20th century, like ‘The Little Things’ and ‘Se7en,’ gain a big, suspenseful advantage by their lack of ready communication.

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The Little Things isn’t very good. It’s not awful, necessarily, but in 10 years you’ll go on IMDb, remember that Rami Malek and Denzel Washington were in a movie together, and wonder what the hell those guys talked about between takes.

Even so, the movie—which came out Friday—does get two things very right. The first is Jared Leto’s character’s car: an incredibly cool green Chevy Nova that sits at the midpoint of Stuntman Mike’s car in Death Proof and David McCall’s car in Fear. That, along with the hair and Leto’s vacant-eyed scene-chewing, clearly signals he’s the Bad Guy.

The second is that this movie takes place in 1990, which means none of the cops have cellphones or, as a matter of course, access to the internet. This is good. In real life, technological advances are generally positive—especially when it comes to tracking and catching murderers. But in movies about the hunt for a serial killer, things like cellphones and internet access feel like cheating.

Few, if any, entertainment properties have devoted as much time to the detective-versus-serial-killer dance as the CBS procedural Criminal Minds. This program, which I both love and detest, ran for 15 seasons and 323 episodes. In most of those episodes, the team of FBI supercops would spend about 37 minutes canvasing, interrogating, and profiling. Then, with five minutes to go, they’d call a woman at a gaming PC in Virginia, where she’d plug all the clues into the American post-9/11 domestic surveillance system and identify the killer. “Oh, he wears size 11 Blundstone boots, has black hair, and drives a pickup truck? Well, there are three such men in the greater Goose Creek, South Carolina, area, only one of whom has prior arrests for assault and animal cruelty. Here’s his home address.” Frequently these conversations would happen while the team was tearin’ ass around the low country in their giant government-issue SUVs. Who needs detectives when you have Cerebro?

Today’s TV and movie cops are never, ever cut off from their support, never lost and disoriented, and never more than an arm’s length away from all the information they need to solve a case. Contrast that with the 1995 film Se7en, in which Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset has to bribe a friend at the FBI for a list of people who checked out the Divine Comedy at the public library (a list the FBI is not supposed to have), wait hours at a diner for that information to be delivered, and then comb through it by hand.

That scene is almost risible in 2021. But serial killer movies set in the last quarter of the 20th century are more appealing because they have to be deliberate. The heroes of the story (or antiheroes, in the case of the Lecterverse movies) have to make connections themselves, rather than walking up to a computer terminal and having connections revealed to them.


These movies are more discursive, allowing the viewer to play along with the detectives as they try to put the puzzle together. We get moments to breathe, like the library scene in Se7en or the Aqua Velva scene in Zodiac, and when one character does have the Sherlock Holmes–like ability to recall and process information like a computer, it’s treated with its due reverence.

In all art, what you withhold is just as important as what you present, and when every cop is constantly connected to their comrades and information is freely available and shared, there’s less to withhold. Consider the 2000 French film The Crimson Rivers, which takes place just as cellphones and the internet were taking root as an inextricable part of modern life. Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel play two detectives from different towns who are investigating different crimes. Their cases hinge on witness interviews and shoe-leather investigation; the only computer in the movie is hooked up to an internal database that displays its results on a monochrome monitor.

Cassel’s character can access the records he needs only by physically going to the highway maintenance facility where they’re stored and talking to the man who works there. That means new sets, new characters, more walk-and-talks, and exposition through dialogue rather than reading off a screen—all of which keeps the viewer more engaged. And perhaps most important, he and Reno meet only when, by chance, they show up at the same suspect’s door at the same moment. Before then, not only were they working different cases, but Cassel’s character knew Reno’s only by reputation, and Reno didn’t know Cassel’s at all. Two detectives, each operating alone, without ready access to backup or information.

Compared to the world we live in today, that set of circumstances requires a shift in point of view—from the omniscience of the modern telecommunications network, to the limitations of one person with a gun, maybe a radio, and their own wits.

The high points of The Little Things come from foregrounding the loneliness of the analog detective. There’s a sequence near the end of the film that, despite the movie’s flaws, creates genuine suspense. Leto’s character promises to show Malek’s Detective Baxter where the bodies are buried, so Baxter hops into the aforementioned green Chevy Nova to go see. While they’re on the highway—when Leto delivers an actual honest-to-God “We’re not so different, you and I” monologue—I felt a pang of dread that seemed odd considering I hadn’t really connected with the film emotionally before that point. I soon realized that, this being 1990, Baxter would have no idea where he was going, and no way to call for backup even if he did. After going everywhere with a smartphone for the past 10 years, I struggled to even comprehend that level of risk, or the emotional state that would have led Baxter to take it.

Absent some plot contrivance in which the detective throws their cellphone away or loses it in a strange fashion, it’s just not possible to create that kind of isolation or vulnerability in a contemporary setting. The cavalry, and the panopticon, are always just one phone call away.

Our society is defined by its interconnectedness, and on balance it’s a good thing that the world is smaller now than it was 25 years ago. But as a result, TV and movie cops have it too easy. There’s more drama to be found in the recent past.