The Little Things is obviously not the first movie ever made about the hunt for a serial killer, nor is it the first of its kind to star Denzel Washington. The film does, however, have a fairly unique take on the concept. Writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) is less interested in crafting a whodunit as he is in examining the toll taken on law enforcement officials as they try to prevent anyone else from being harmed. As such, the story sneaks up on you, driving its theme home with a powerful final scene that leaves you floored.
Washington plays Joe Deacon, a former LAPD detective who had a complete breakdown over a serial killer case he was unable to crack. Still carrying a ton of guilt, he's now a deputy for a small police department in upstate California. A bit of routine business takes him back to his old workplace, where he crosses paths with Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the man who essentially replaced him. Baxter, very cocky at first, is trying to solve his own serial killer case and asks Deacon to consult. Young women keep turning up dead, and he just can't seem to get a lead.
Being back in L.A. brings up Deacon's old memories. He wonders if it's possible that the killer he never nabbed is the same one Baxter is looking for. A number of clues point to Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a crime-obsessed loner who works in an appliance store. The two men begin looking for something – anything – that will definitively tie Sparma to the murders. He, meanwhile, takes clear delight in taunting them.
The Little Things raises all kinds of interesting dilemmas. Is Baxter heading down the same tormented road that Deacon has been on for years? Is Deacon's need to heal his trauma somehow shaping Baxter's investigation for the worse? If someone like Sparma is sketchy and admittedly gets turned on by violent crimes, does that automatically make him capable of murder? Those are just a few of the ideas the story gets at. The manner in which it answers them is as chilling as it is poignant.
That's not to say there aren't scenes that make your skin crawl. A sequence inside the apartment of a murdered woman is eerie, and there's a tense standoff between Deacon and Sparma on a highway. The big climax occurs way out in the middle of nowhere, between two characters who realize the gravity of their situation and whose actions are therefore impossible to predict. While possessing little of the gore Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs had, The Little Things nevertheless achieves a pervasive sense of dread.
All three main actors give pitch-perfect performances. Washington gets to switch things up here, playing Deacon as a tormented figure as opposed to the cool, collected cop he's been in other movies. We feel his anguish through the actor's nuanced work. Malek nicely transitions Baxter from an arrogant snob to a guy coming to terms with his own fallibility, gradually realizing that, if he can't find the culprit, the blood will be on his hands. Leto, meanwhile, vanishes into Sparma. Wearing subtle prosthetics that change the shape of his face and creating both a speech cadence and a gait for the character, he provides a jolt of unpredictable live-wire energy whenever he comes onscreen. Even better, the actor ensures we can never decide Sparma's guilt or innocence for ourselves.
The Little Things doesn't end up quite where we expect it to, wisely keeping its focus on the psychological aspects of the story rather than going for a traditional action-packed climax. Deacon tells Baxter at one point that it's the little things that tear you apart. As the film fades to black, the meaning of that sentiment for these two men becomes hauntingly clear.
out of four
The Little Things is rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.