It will never not be strange that the true crime genre and its fictional counterpart — bloody genres besotted with dead and missing women, haunted detectives, outpourings of familial grief — are not only entertainment, but, for many, an ideal Friday night comfort watch. It’s not a moral question, really; detective stories are rabbit holes whose appeal, i.e. a search for the truths that make such horrors explicable, feels self-explanatory. The violence of these stories, the follies of the truth-seekers, the imminent danger — it all makes the barreling-forward toward discovery, toward justice, feel thrilling, even if horrific, even when we don’t always want to admit it.
Which is all a way of saying that a thriller like John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things, which is now streaming on HBO Max, knows it has a job to do, and it does that job well. It entertains. It’s also more than a little strange, not least because of its casting (and more memorable for it). A case in point. We’re given a three-way tango between a detective, a former detective (now sheriff), and a suspected serial killer, played (not necessarily respectively) by Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto.
One of these men is not like the others, in that you already know he’s not the serial killer. I’m talking about Denzel, obviously. You already know that his Deke Deacon is the sheriff — sorry, Deputy Sheriff. You can probably guess that with that change in title and locale — from LAPD detective to Kent County cop, a bigwig in a humble job — comes with an unhappy backstory. Few actors can make a meal of a haunted past as convincingly and reliably as Washington; he’s the kind of actor who can take a rote script, go through the motions of a character arc that wears its psychology as proudly as a political bumper sticker, and still move you.
So, yes, Deke was once broken by a very bad case — a double-murder of two women that resulted in not only a suspension from the force and a divorce (with further estrangement from two now-adult daughters), but also a heart attack. It’s too, too much. Thanks to Denzel, that’s the fun — or if not “fun,” the presiding comfort that hooks us.
What’s curious is making up our minds about the other two. If you had to guess, who do you think plays the killer: Leto or Malek? (Don’t look it up.) What’s appealingly odd about The Little Things is that two of its three leads are nearly incapable of playing the Everyman, the average Joe, the clean-cut detective committed to the case. They are, by contrast, completely capable of adding convincing shades of the unspeakable to the role of a serial killer. Malek has an energy that keeps a viewer on edge even when that isn’t the intention; occasional miscasting aside, this is a compliment. Something about the men he plays always makes them seem a little too awake, too flighty to trust outright. Whereas Leto is obviously marked, from the outset, as a Bad Guy, and not only because he sports the long hair of a ‘70s cult figure. His characters often have pasts that insinuate themselves into the present, intentions that often seem withholding. It’s not difficult to imagine a version of this movie in which these actors’ roles are reversed.
Which kept me, at least, interested in the movie’s various, well-directed but not exactly original goings-on. The Little Things makes clear that Malek’s Jimmy Baxter is the upstart detective, and Leto’s Albert Sparma is the hollow-eyed suspect. It’s Deke’s past, however — and the utter sense of history Denzel brings to the role, which demands that he returns to his old L.A. haunts and gets wrapped up in a case that he has no business being involving with — that reels a viewer in. And the scenes in which I couldn’t help but look askance at Malek, or wondering skeptically about the ostensible guilt of Leto — he could just be a weirdo! — kept me alert to the possibility of the movie veering totally off course.
Most of the movie demands little description otherwise — not because it isn’t worth watching, but because you more or less know what you’re about to watch. You wait for lines like: “It’s the little things that are important, Jimmy. It’s the little things that get you caught.” You wait for the punchline-like gumshoe crunch of certain revelations, such as the connection an investigator makes between a folded pizza and the killer’s origins “back East.” (To which this New Jersey native reacted with a middle finger and a temptation to side with the killer.) You know that the film’s depictions of its crime scenes will creep along the blood stains with the seen-it-all mundanity of the detectives themselves; that the dead women will be uncritically nude; and that the harbinger of sexual or otherwise prurient violation will be more than a little apparent.
The wildcards aren’t the murders, but the actors and the curious energies they bring to the story. At one point in its final stretch, Hancock’s two-men-one-killer thriller begs comparison to Fincher’s Seven. More than begs, really: the film practically pleads on its knees. And there’s certainly something (though not necessarily anything interesting) to be said for what the film owes to the glossy period proceduralism of Fincher’s Zodiac, another California story, and the Netflix series Mindhunter (RIP). That latter argument is hardly limited to this movie.
What the comparison to Seven unduly overlooks, however — and you hate to admit this — are the little things. This trio has got an odd chemistry that stokes anxieties that the movie itself, committed to procedure, doesn’t quite pause to compensate for. The Little Things settles sleekly into its place as a movie of the week. That’s a satisfying enough ambition — even as the actors onscreen give performances that point to a richer, wilder movie.