“The Little Things” is akin to the 1996 David Fincher thriller “Se7en” but without that film’s oppressive sense of dread and mood of perversity.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, “The Little Things” has talent and star power in front of the camera, and for its first three-quarters it’s a solid, workmanlike, but not especially vivid, suspense drama.
Hancock wrote the original script in the late 1990s and the picture is set in 1990 mainly in and around Los Angeles. The script has been smoothly updated by Hancock and, until its final section, the movie is a competently constructed serial killer procedural with bloody crime scenes and forensic pathology, but it has a more genteel tone than Fincher’s film.
Hancock emphasizes the investigation, not the killings, and the actors do what they can to patch up the story holes, but implausibility creeps in, and the sturdy if traditional plot falls apart. Seeing the three stars working hard to turn “The Little Things” into a gripping genre picture holds our interest, but the material peters out and lets them, and us, down.
Washington plays Joe Deacon, known as “Deke” to the few friends he has left, a deputy sheriff in northern California, who, on an errand to LA, rides along on a murder case and finds himself in the hunt for a serial killer who might be the same killer he couldn’t catch five years earlier. It turns out to be a hostile homecoming for Deke, who quit the force under pressure from colleagues who burned out on his habit of bulling his way into cases and taking over investigations.
The picture feels like a vehicle for Washington, and he plays Deke with the same deliberation, dedication and quiet confidence that he brings to all his roles. Deke insinuates himself the serial killer case that belongs to the smooth Jimmy Dexter (Malek), a formal and conscientious detective who at first plays second-banana to Deke but gradually learns to trust him as a partner. The script sets up Jimmy as a Deke-in-training: A family man with a suffocating work ethic that could slip into self-destruction.
Things go wrong when the prime suspect, Albert Sparma (Leto) appears. He’s a creepy, long-haired loner who looks like he walked in from a different movie. Leto’s entire performance is in his eyes and he tries to juice up the role with eccentricity and weirdness, but his acting goes limp.
The picture climaxes with too many unconvincing cat-and-mouse games than it can handle. It tries to be tricky but winds up confusing instead. The suspense drains away and we’re left with one implausible event after another.
The film’s high point comes when Deke speaks gently to the corpse of a young woman. He almost begs her to provide him with clues so he can solve her murder. “I’m the only friend you have now,” he whispers.