The vast majority of film scripts written throughout history make it nowhere near the screen, let alone into the hands of filmmakers intent on filming them. That said, quite a few screenplays actually achieve the latter but still don’t ever get made. John Lee Hancock‘s script for The Little Things has been floating around Hollywood since the early 90s and at various times had the likes of Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood attached to direct, but nearly three decades later, it’s Hancock himself who’s finally adapted it into an actual movie. The possibilities of what could have been are lost in the ether, but as for what is? Well, the film is missing more than a few of the little things.
A serial killer is targeting women in Los Angeles — he kills them, puts a bag over their heads, and props them into casual positions — and while the case is assigned to a hotshot detective named Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) it also catches the eye of a podunk beat cop from outside of LA county. Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) was once an LA detective too, but five years ago he was hobbled by a case that left him suspended, divorced, and in need of triple bypass heart surgery. That case was never solved, and as the new details are strikingly familiar the two men decide to work together to catch a killer. But where to start? Maybe with lead suspect Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) and his hyper-curious behavior, psychotic eyes, and neon sign over his head stating “I’m probably the killer!”
The 90s opened and closed with Washington catching killers on screen, but The Little Things lacks both the confidence of The Bone Collector (1991) and the energy of Ricochet (1999). It’s still every bit a 90s thriller, in part because Hancock has kept its original setting in the decade, but even so many years later it also feels like it’s lacking some crucial elements necessary for the genre and satisfying movies in general.
A generic killer plot is easily overcome through engaging characters and direction, but neither is evident here. Deacon and Baxter follow the expected setup of cops with conflicting approaches — think everything from Lethal Weapon (1987) to Seven (1997) — but their arcs unfold with varying degrees of inconsistency. Deacon is something of a sad sack, and Washington plays him with a somewhat compelling pathos as details of what happened five years ago and what exactly it cost him come to light. He’s lost none of his supercop detective skills, though, and is soon back in unofficial control of the investigation, for better and worse.
Baxter, meanwhile, is introduced as a top cop, but he’s almost inexplicably worthless as a detective. Worse, he’s written as a guy already on the verge of cracking for no discernible reason, and Malek portrays him as if he has the most fragile of broomsticks up his behind. More time with the character — or a more measured performance — might have made for a less jarring character, but as it stands Baxter feels half-baked at best.
And then there’s Leto’s Sparma. Sporting both a fake nose and false paunch, Leto limps and drawls his way through the film as the most obvious prime suspect since Charles Manson. Is he guilty? I’ll never tell, but everything Sparma’s doing and saying certainly points that direction. Leto’s performance ends up being the most interesting element of The Little Things, even if it does frequently feel on the nose, but the assuredness of his guilt is one of several things working against any semblance of suspense.
Neither Hancock’s script nor his direction seek out or find any real sense of urgency, and instead the film simply trudges along towards its somewhat underwhelming conclusion. It briefly comes alive with tension during a sequence featuring Malek and Leto in a remote locale, but choices are made redirecting The Little Things back towards its mundane beats and execution. The ending is meant to land with emotion as it drives home its story of obsession and the weight of living with past actions, but unlike something like Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001), Hancock can’t bring those themes together in a meaningful or affecting way.
The victims who haunt Deacon’s nights are mere window dressing — a problem affecting all of the film’s female characters — and despite Washington’s best efforts, neither the investigation nor the characters’ foibles leave much of a mark. The case itself becomes filler as the two dour leads shuffle from one location to the next, and it leaves viewers struggling to care as ultimately we’re as uninterested in the killer and killings as is the film itself. That’s bad news for a thriller, and it’s something The Little Things is never able to overcome.