The Little Things
- By Debbie Emery
- Photos Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Most serial killer dramas focus on identifying the killer, then their subsequent capture and conviction. Whereas the fascination of The Little Things is that the plot focuses on not who committed a series of violent murders in ‘90s Los Angeles — but the psychological impact on the detectives who are trying to solve the grisly cases.
The neo-noir crime thriller opens in Kern County, California, where we meet Denzel Washington’s character, Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon. However, viewers soon learn that Deke wasn’t always working in a sleepy town when he is reluctantly sent south on I-5 to Los Angeles to collect evidence and is reunited with former coworkers … many of whom are not pleased to see him back. There Deke is introduced to clean-cut homicide detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody). The two very different police officers are understandably wary of each other at first, but Baxter opts to invite the veteran cop along for the ride to check out the crime scene of a new murder case. The bound and slashed female victim who was found with a bag over her head brings back startling flashbacks of Deke’s final (still unsolved) case with the LAPD. While Deke’s method of investigation is unique to say the least, Baxter slowly becomes impressed by his intuition and goes from mockingly calling him “Kojak” to seeking advice from his predecessor as pressure mounts to solve six brutal murders. As Deke and Baxter’s relationship slowly and cautiously flourishes, the third Oscar winner of the cast is weaved into the expertly scripted plotline: Jared Leto as Albert Sparma, an incredibly creepy electrical repairman and true crime buff who is the prime suspect in the murders thanks to a smart lead by Deke. Leto displays the same chameleon talent that allowed him to go from playing John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 to drug-addicted, HIV positive trans character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (a role that nabbed Leto his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Sparma, who looks like a scraggly Charles Manson wannabe, that’s so unnerving … but he’s the kind of person who makes you want to first shower, and then double-check your doors are locked after interacting with him. It’s a credit to Leto’s acting immense talent that even without firm evidence that Sparma has committed any sort of crime, you just feel that he is a very, very bad person at the core. What’s scariest about him, however, is he’s very smart and capable of forcing even Deke and Baxter into a situation of which there is no easy way out.
The thrilling chess match between these three central characters creates the core of The Little Things, as writer and director John Lee Hancock takes us on both a dark tour of LA’s dirty back alleys and into the city bright, wholesome suburban homes (the juxtaposition of Deke’s filthy hotel room with Baxter’s beautiful wife and daughters in their perfect home is especially impactful). While the movie is set and filmed in LA County, it doesn’t fall victim to cliché landmarks — and even takes us a terrifying road trip up the 14 to Palmdale and Lancaster.
The other key to setting the tone of nineties era City of Angels (the script itself was offered to Steven Spielberg in 1993 but he thought it was too dark) is the menacing, keyboard-heavy score by composer Thomas Newman, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for 1917. Some critics dubbed The Little Things as a “pulpy and ridiculous” imitation of Seven, but I really don’t agree with that comparison and found it gripping from the opening scene as the B-52s played on an open highway to the final scene … which we’re not going to spoil for you. Instead, the taut thriller reminds me of a James Ellroy novel that captures the perils of life in LA. Aside from the trifecta of Oscar-winners mentioned, The Little Things also stars Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Chris Bauer and Joris Jarsky. It was produced by Hancock and Mark Johnson.
The Warner Bros. movie premiered in select theaters on January 29th and is available to stream on HBO Max free for subscribers.