Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Glenn Morshower, Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Jason James Richter.
“It’s the little things that catch you,” says veteran detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) in this tense and gritty but derivative serial killer thriller and police procedural.
Five years ago, Deacon was one of the best detectives in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, with a great record for clearing murder cases. But then his obsession with catching a serial killer who was brutally murdering prostitutes cost him his marriage. He suffered a heart attack and, suffering from PSTD, he was eventually forced out of the department under questionable circumstances. The crimes were never solved, and the killer was never caught, and he has been haunted by that case ever since. A burnt-out case, he now works as a deputy in a small county sheriff’s department. He is sent to LA on a routine assignment to collect some vital evidence in a local murder, but finds himself drawn back into an investigation involving a serial killer attacking women. Despite the meticulous killer not leaving any forensic evidence behind, there are similarities with the old case, which still haunts Deacon.
Heading this investigation is his replacement Baxter (Oscar winner Rami Malek, from Bohemian Rhapsody, etc) an ambitious young detective who is aware that this case could make his career. Deacon is slowly drawn into the investigation, offering advice to the younger detective who is happy to draw upon the veteran cop’s experience and instincts. After a while, Deacon begins to focus his attention on Albert Sparma (Jared Leto, from The Dallas Buyers’ Club, etc), a repairman who works in a local shop and is linked to the crimes by circumstantial evidence. Sparma is a crime-obsessed loner. Thus, begins a cat and mouse game as Deacon and Baxter begin to look for evidence to convict Sparma, whom they are convinced is guilty. The pair sometimes cross a line in their obsession, which ultimately has dire consequences for the three men.
Writer/director John Lee Hancock (better known for feel good fare like The Blind Side, etc) has obviously aimed to try and recreate a similar vibe to David Fincher’s 1995 classic serial killer thriller Seven, and there are obvious parallels between the two in its structure, its narrative arc and the relationship between the central characters. Thus, we get the dark and gloomy cinematography from Hancock’s regular cinematographer John Schwartzman that gives the material a palpable sense of dread; murky rooms lit by flashlights, graphic crime scene images, the tense cat and mouse game with a killer, the relationship between the veteran detective and the ambitious up and coming younger detective, and the climactic confrontation in the desert which shapes the lives of the three protagonists.
But Hancock somewhat misses the mark with this copycat thriller. Whereas much of Seven occurred in a dark and rainy city, which gave it a palpable sense of unease, a lot of The Little Things takes place in sunny California and in daylight, which is somehow not as threatening. Hancock supposedly wrote the script way back in 1993 when he was working on Clint Eastwood’s crime drama A Perfect World and didn’t make the film then because he had young children and was more interested in making upbeat and family friendly fare. But now he felt more comfortable with the darker material, although he has deliberately maintained the 90s setting to create a certain atmosphere.
Hancock has assembled a fine cast that includes three Oscar winners, so the performances are top notch. Washington is an actor who usually brings dignity and intelligence to his performances (even as a rogue cop in Training Day), and here he again delivers a solid performance as the flawed and emotionally damaged Deacon, who is haunted by the past and tries to prevent his younger protégé from making the same mistakes with this current investigation. He is always good when playing virtuous heroes, but when he plays flawed characters he is a much more interesting actor.
Malek does a good job as the ambitious Baxter and conveys his unease with the turn that his investigation is taking, but he seems a little miscast. The dynamic between Washington and Malek lacks that tension and level of easy rapport that Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt brough to their pairing in Seven. With his long hair and mild manner Leto is quite creepy as Albert as he deliberately downplays the role, which makes him somehow more unnerving.
The Little Things is yet another Los Angeles set crime drama (think LA Confidential, Chinatown, etc), but Hancock gives the familiar city a gritty and sleazy edge here. Hancock has also subverted the rules of the police procedural genre here, so The Little Things does often head in some unexpected directions. The characters are more morally challenged and the resolution here is more ambiguous.
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