The Little Things: Copycat, by David Bax
It’s hard to say for certain why writer/director John Lee Hancock set The Little Things in the early 1990s. Maybe he wanted to recapture the scuzz of pre-gentrification downtown Los Angeles (which he abandons after the first act anyway in favor of the ongoing and more sprawling scuzz of the San Fernando Valley). Or maybe detective stories are just more interesting to write when most people don’t carry GPS tracking devices in their pockets everywhere they go. Or, perhaps most likely, this type of movie just feels more at home in the 90s. With its lurid shots of female murder victims and its pathologically obsessed detectives, it’s like a blend of Kiss the Girls and The Pledge. But Hancock comes across as too self-conscious in his homages and his big existential swings for The Little Things to feel like anything more than a retread.
Denzel Washington is Joe Deacon, a former detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who has since moved on to a quieter detail in Kern County. When a procedural task brings him back to his old territory, he crosses paths with new, hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who happens to be in the middle of a case remarkably similar to one from years ago that Deacon was never able to close. Though the two initially clash over their differing ages and investigative techniques, they come to find a kinship in one another in their tireless drive.
In the early going, Hancock finds color and personality in the specifics (the little things, one could say) of detective work. Whereas most thrillers never bother to show their characters doing mundane things like eating, it becomes almost a running joke how much of the movie’s first half depicts Deacon and Baxter hashing out the case over breakfast, lunch or late night burgers. And there’s humor in what qualifies as the movie’s only car chase sequence, a Los Angeles-style version in bumper to bumper traffic.
These small eccentricities are fun but they peter out once Deacon and Baxter land on their prime suspect, Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto as one giant eccentricity. Leto’s performance is so big and so conspicuously creepy that you may find yourself hoping that Sparma turns out to be a red herring. This weirdo being the killer would just be too obvious.
Perhaps Leto’s archness would work if The Little Things wanted to be a little more fun. But Hancock increasingly pushes a moody pseudo-profundity. This is a movie in which Deacon stares at the photos of the victims whose murders he failed to solve and then says out loud to himself in an empty room, “It’s never over.”
Plenty of crosses and other Christian imagery appear in The Little Things (Baxter is described as a “holy roller”). It all feels like cheap, borrowed spiritual portent, though, especially since Hancock seems to think it’s Deacon–an overwritten version of the tortured, jaded, genius detective archetype–who’s the real angel.