8/10 Warner Bros.’ moody new noir The Little Things is primarily being dismissed as too close to the 1995 classic Seven, and, yeah. That’s pretty much all there is to say. It’s a beat-for-beat remake of Seven with a significant helping of themes and imagery lifted from 2013’s Prisoners, and those are both far superior movies that you should watch instead. The Little Things is still quite good, though.
October 1990, California- A killer of women stalks Los Angeles County, and police are at a loss for suspects. Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) makes the long drive from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to pick up evidence, bloody shoes being tested for DNA in a Kern County case. Deke left the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department acrimoniously five years ago, and there is friction between him and the department. Spending the night, LASD Det. Sgt. Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), Deacon’s replacement on the force, invites him to a fresh murder scene. The two become convinced that this murder is connected not only to the current spat of killings, but the case that caused Deacon to leave Los Angeles, eventually settling on Albert Leonard Sparma (Jared Leto) as a primary suspect.
If The Little Things doesn’t have anything new to offer, it’s probably because it’s not a new movie. Screenwriter and eventual director/producer John Lee Hancock completed the first draft of the script in 1993 intending it as a Steven Spielberg project, but Spielberg – who had just finished Schindler’s List, mind you – decided it was too dark for him. Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito were all attached at various points before Hancock decided to see it through himself.
Hancock has quite a long resume – he’d already written and directed his debut, Hard Time Romance, before he wrote The Little Things, and it’s his ninth time in the director’s chair, seventh screenwriting credit and second producing credit. He’ll be best known for The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, and he’s also one of the listed cowriters for personal favorite Snow White and the Huntsman.
Seven released in 1995, two years after The Little Things’ script was reportedly completed, so you’ve got to feel for Hancock having his script overshadowed like that, but at the same time, if you make what’s essentially a worse version of a movie that blew the doors off when it was released and has remained a cultural icon 25 years later, you deserve to get mostly ignored. The Little Things also has a ton of thematic overlap with Prisoners, which isn’t particularly prominent today, but many of its creatives are going to go down as the best in history and it will be studied and recognized more as time goes on.
The Little Things also has an entire scene lifted from Silence of the Lambs and directly quotes The Dark Knight and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at points – it definitely knows and takes pleasure in all the other movies it’s related to.
There’s no reason to watch The Little Things over the masterpieces it appears to be derived from, but it is a rich, atmospheric and well-acted film on its own.
The Little Things does a great job of establishing the distance between catching the killer and proving he is one, lacing that distance into not just the text but the experience of watching the movie. Trying to get concrete proof are stilted and frustrating. Following Sparma and playing his games is exhilarating, but the knowledge that this scene will be a dead end always lingers in not quite the back of your mind.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a limited role in the real world, but they’re weirdly prominent in The Little Things, taking on urban murders that should be the police department’s jurisdiction. Deacon is sent to Los Angeles in the first place because they’re doing Kern County’s DNA collection. It’s got the seediness of a Los Angeles noir, but having everyone be sheriffs lends a strong flavor of Americana to the film, giving it a strong Western, middle-of-nowhere flavor at the same time.
Tasteless, limp gallows humor that Deacon and Baxter never seem comfortable with pervades the various offices of the LASD reflecting a deep cynicism about their chances of success, a cynicism that rears its head in more and uglier ways as the film wears on. They even appear to shoot multiple murder investigations on the same set. This does not come across as a continuity error, but as a literalization of the crushing wave of violence engulfing Los Angeles and a demonstration of how little the people in charge of keeping us safe seem to care. They barely seem to notice.
As the corpses mount, the only jurisdictional division that appears to matter is between Deke and Baxter, the only guys who care about catching the killer or killers, and everyone else. After several years of intermittent riots and protests against police brutality, we have to ask with every cop-centric movie where it intersects with the realities we’re learning about American law enforcement, and The Little Things seems intent on the fact that American police are remarkably bad at their jobs.
The Little Things is fast-paced and detailed and demands the viewer keep their eyes glued to the screen. It’s too bad I’m watching this at home with daylight streaming in from my right and I’m constantly pausing it to take notes and look at my phone.
The Little Things was boldly marketed on the credentials of the cast. The last frame of the trailer simply drops all their names, “Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington” – Washington won his Oscar for Training Day, another seedy Los Angeles noir about police apathy and failure that’s probably much better than The Little Things – “Academy Award Winner Rami Malek” – Malek was given his Oscar for valiantly losing a battle with his Freddie Mercury dentures in Bohemian Rhapsody – and “Academy Award Winner Jared Leto” – Leto won the Oscar for his deeply problematic trans performance in Dallas Buyers Club and has at great effort been making everything else he touches deeply problematic ever since.
In this way, The Little Things deeply entwines itself with the politics of the Academy, but it also makes plain just how hollow those politics can be. Just in our easy comparison films, Seven and Prisoners, we’ve got career performances from Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman and supporting performances that are better than anything we get in The Little Things. That isn’t to say this movie is poorly performed, just the opposite, but it does make the whole cultural construct around the Oscars, Hollywood selling its own self-congratulations back to the masses, quite transparent.
Leto has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, and he’ll likely see a major Oscar push in the coming months.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.