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The Little Things: Retro Serial Killer Film Slays

The Little Things is a self-consciously old fashioned 90s serial killer thriller, made effective thanks to three very good lead performances.

The Little Things is the story of a cop with a tortured past (Denzel Washington, of Training Day) paired up with a young hotshot detective (Rami Malek, of Mr. Robot) on the trail of a local man fingered as a regional serial killer (Jared Leto, of Requiem for a Dream). If that pitch sounds suspiciously like a lot of movies you’ve seen before, that’s because The Little Things is very consciously a throwback to the sort of 90s crime thriller Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.

Hollywood filmmaking, like serial killing, is a field that finds itself full of copycats.  So when The Silence of the Lambs took this sort of thriller not just to the masses, but to Oscar glory, it was to be expected that we would see a wave of police thrillers. And so the studios were off to the races, and the next decade saw a deluge of homicidal maniacs chased by tortured cops: some were truly excellent, like David Fincher’s Se7en, and others were decidedly not excellent, like The Watcher. There was a pleasant stretch of quality movies, not infrequently based on James Patterson books, that dove into the serial killer chase, like Kiss the Girls, Fallen, and The Bone Collector (the latter two, not coincidentally, star Denzel as well). It was not long, however, before network procedurals like Criminal Minds or more highbrow efforts like Dexter shifted the genre to the small screen.

The Little Things seems designed for those of us who prefer our serial killers a little more terrifying, our murders a little more chilling, and our detectives a little more tortured than the structure of television can allow. Even the film’s marketing has leaned into the 90s crime aesthetic. It was not so long ago that all movie posters and trailers were christened with “Academy Award Winner” or “Academy Award Nominee” or, for lesser material, “Golden Globe Winner.”  It was an easy assurance of presupposed quality to adult audiences disinterested in pursuing arthouse fair, and extremely common within the genre.  In what has been a year devoid of conventional big studio movies, the pitch of three Oscar winners in a serial killer story is like a warm blanket of escapism.

loud and clear reviews “THE LITTLE THINGS”
(L-r) DENZEL WASHINGTON as Joe “Deke” Deacon and RAMI MALEK as Jim Baxter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ psychological thriller “THE LITTLE THINGS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved)

So, when Denzel finds himself dragged into the search for a killer – quite suspiciously similar to the one who once escaped his own pursuit some years earlier – I was fully along for the ride. It helps that the film is well shot and leans pleasantly into its 1990 setting. The lack of cell phones and CSI-style forensic shortcuts helps increase tension in a pleasant way. The period theming is effective, from antiquated computer screens in backgrounds to marketing logos. Even the cars driven by the characters largely date from the late 70s or early 80s and have the sort of weathered look one would expect from a tortured detective story. It’s not a perfect film, though I’m not sure it aspires to be one either. There are some eccentricities at play, here, that simply don’t connect, including some light magic realism which sees Denzel’s character visualizing conversations with past murder victims and editing, which can feel very choppy.

The performers, though, are what bring The Little Things its greatest joy. It’s nice when you start a movie like this knowing full well that at some point near the film’s climax, you’re going to get three Oscar winners going for it in an acting showdown. Denzel, here, is at his movie star Denzel-iest which makes for truly great cinematic comfort food. And that’s not to say he’s merely resting on his usual star charisma; he’s engaged and committed to the material even in its hokier bits. Rami Malek is strong as Denzel’s partner. It’s nice to see an actor of his Egyptian background cast in the “young cop” role that has almost exclusive been the domain of white men over the years. He’s an excellent fit for the part, and his slight off-kilter energy gives his scenes with Denzel a nice livewire feel.

The real highlight here is Jared Leto. I’ll admit I’ve not been a fan of much of the actor’s recent output, largely because it always feels like he goes so Big. Here, however, his scenery chewing is deployed spectacularly. Leto’s suspected serial killer is a fanboy for true crime stories, which allows his performance to showcase an almost upbeat cheery delivery. It’s a savvy, fun way to undercut the usual pressure packed interrogation room scenes you expect from the genre. I cannot say I expected Leto to win the film’s climactic act-offs, but he’s really great here.

The Little Things: Trailer (Warner Bros / HBO)

If someone told me that, after all we’ve gone through in the last year, he or she simply couldn’t get invested in a movie that’s at least in part “cop-agenda,” I get it. If the thought of two hours with heroic, well-meaning police makes you cringe, look elsewhere. I don’t want to divorce this film from the very real issues on people’s minds today. For me, at least, The Little Things was a shockingly delightful throwback to the sort of movies I loved growing up, and served as some immensely joyous escapism.

The Little Things was released on Friday, 29 January, 2021 and is now available to watch on HBO Max.

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