Since it’s due to leave HBOMax at the end of the day and since HBOMax isn’t exactly cheap, I decided that I should go ahead and watch The Little Things, the serial killer thriller that has been getting some unexpected Oscar buzz due to the performance of Jared Leto.
Taking place in the 90s, The Little Things follows two cops as they investigate a series of murders. Deacon (Denzel Washington) is the former hotshot homicide detective who, back in the day, allowed his obsession with an unsolved murder to destroy his life. He lost not only his wife but also nearly his life. Now, he’s a small town deputy who is still haunted by the cases that he didn’t solve. Jim (Rami Malek) is the detective who has picked up where Deacon left off. Deacon is haunted and unable to move on. Jim is young and cocky and obviously doomed to repeat all of Deacon’s mistakes. At first, Jim doesn’t want to work with Deacon and Deacon seems to be a little bit skeptical of Jim’s abilities. Eventually, though, they bond over their mutual righteousness. Jim is the type of who reminds the crime scene technicians that they’re working for the victim. Deacon is the type who muses about whether or not God has abandoned humanity. On the one hand, we should be thankful that they’re good at their job. On the other hand, you wouldn’t necessarily want to invite either of them to a party.
Deacon and Jim’s investigation leads them to a suspect named Sparma (Jared Leto) and you know that he’s a bad dude as soon as you learn that his name is “Sparma.” It sounds like too much of a mix of sperm and pharma for this guy to be anything other than dangerous. Sparma is an appliance repairman with unwashed hair, a permanent smirk on his face, and a disconcerting history of confessing to crimes that he didn’t actually commit. Jim and Deacon both think that Sparma is guilty but can they prove it? How far will they go to take a possible killer off the streets?
Jared Leto is certainly creepy as Sparma. In fact, I think you could probably argue that he’s a little bit too obviously creepy and unhinged in the role. Most real life serial killers — especially the ones who manage to kill for years without being detected — are able to blend in with society. Consider the cases of killers like Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer who avoided capture for nearly three decades, or Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK killer. While it’s true that everyone in his hometown apparently thought Rader was a dick even before he was revealed to be a serial killer, he also still managed to hold down a respectable job while raising a family and fooling people into thinking that he was just a normal jerk as opposed to a homicidal one. That ability to blend in and disguise their true selves is one of the things that makes real-life serial killers so frightening. Sparma, however, might as well have the words “murderer” tattooed on his forehead. I can understand why Jared Leto is getting Oscar buzz because it’s a showy role and it allows him to act up a storm. But it’s still hard not to feel that the film, which tries to introduce the idea that Deacon and Jim’s obsession with this case has led to them developing a tunnel vision that has left them incapable of suspecting anyone other than Sparma, might have been a bit more effective if it had taken a slightly more ambiguous approach to the character.
That said, The Little Things is a well-made movie. Though it’s bit overlong and occasionally meanders a bit too much for its own good, the film looks great and director John Lee Hancock does a good job of creating an effectively creepy atmosphere, providing the viewer with some wonderfully ominous images as Deacon and Jim search for the truth in the middle of the night. For instance, the scene where Deacon imagines himself talking to the ghosts of the killer’s victims really shouldn’t work but it does because Washington gives such a committed performance and Hancock, as a director and writer, is smart enough to just let the scene develop naturally. Even as he ages, Denzel Washington remains a compelling actor and he helps to carry The Little Things over more than few speed bumps on the way to the end credits. At its best, the film works as an examination of obsession and there is a haunting intensity to the film’s final moments that suggests the movie that The Little Things could have been if the film’s pace had been just a little bit tighter.
In the end, The Little Things is uneven but it has enough effective moments to be watchable.