The Little Things, the new movie from writer-director John Lee Hancock that premieres on HBO Max on Friday, is more than just an homage to the serial killer films of the 1990s: It’s literally a serial killer film from the 1990s, a straightforward execution of a screenplay Hancock originally wrote in 1993. Rather than update it for the age of cell phones and DNA evidence, Hancock made it as a period piece, and in both good ways and bad, it feels like a lost film from the years when studios were chasing after The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. The thriller isn’t shy about its influences: The second shot is a straight lift from The Silence of the Lambs, with Sofia Vassilieva rocking out to “Roam” instead of Brooke Smith and “American Girl.” Unfortunately, The Little Things never reaches the same heights of gothic weirdness or stylized gore as the best of the films it echoes. If Hancock had made it in the 1990s, it would have been a solid middle-of-the-pack entry. In 2021, it’s a throwback.
Denzel Washington stars as Joe Deacon, a former detective from the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department who burned out so spectacularly he ended up a sheriff’s deputy in Kern County. Circumstances conspire to send Joe back to Los Angeles, where he discovers that the killer from the unsolved case that broke him has struck again. He forms an unlikely but (given the genre) inevitable bond with fellow Oscar winner Rami Malek’s up-and-coming detective, and their investigation leads them to a suspect, played with bug-eyed glee by a third Oscar winner, Jared Leto. Washington starred in two films that were part of the original 1990s wave: The Bone Collector, in which he played a tetraplegic detective who catches a serial killer with the help of beat cop Angelina Jolie (!), and Fallen, a serial-killer-adjacent film in which he battles a demon. (If you revisit The Bone Collector, you’ll see why he’d want a do-over.) He fully commits, but the script doesn’t serve him well; this is the kind of movie where a cop shows he cares about a victim by having a one-sided conversation with her body at the morgue. Washington can’t quite sell that scene, or the one where the bodies of the victims appear in his hotel room late at night, but whenever Hancock is not making the subtext into text, Washington conveys the mixture of shame and defiant pride his character carries around with him in every checked gesture and swallowed retort. Malek’s performance covers less distance: His intense stare and deliberate delivery make it hard to buy him as a department golden boy, so his descent into obsession doesn’t feel like much of a fall. Jared Leto, of course, is Jared Leto, as good at creepily chewing scenery as John Malkovich back in the day, and good for him.
The Little Things is 1990s-authentic down to its treatment of women: Wives come in two flavors, ex- and adoring, and the film’s other female characters are cops or corpses, with no in-between. The efforts Hancock has made to update the script don’t quite bridge the decades: A male coroner’s assistant in the original version is now a black woman played by Michael Hyatt, while Natalie Morales’ detective has graduated from “the youngest and prettiest (though she tries her damnedest to hide it)” in a 1997 draft to “the youngest and most attractive (though she tries to hide it)” by 2019, while remaining a virtual non-entity in the plot. It might not be possible to eliminate the misogyny baked into a genre built on dead women, especially not in a period piece, but The Little Things barely tries.
The film’s greatest strength is also its fatal flaw. Hancock sets his story inside the LASD instead of the LAPD. The sheriff’s department has jurisdiction over the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, which gives Hancock an excuse to take the camera out of the city’s well-worn noir locations—although a few traditional favorites, like “the skid row flophouse” (played here by the perpetually-troubled Madison Hotel) and “the reservoir” (Mulholland Dam, as always), make cameo appearances. This decision to branch out pays off most spectacularly with a gorgeous series of shots at Bun N Burger in Alhambra, where the green and red neon is beautiful enough to overcome the fact that this is roughly the billionth film to recreate Nighthawks. Cinematographer John Schwartzman’s palette takes its cues from Edward Hopper’s painting throughout, bathing the night scenes in deep undersea greens and blues. It’s not a new vision of Los Angeles at night—see, e.g., every film Michael Mann has ever set here—but it’s well executed and looks great. The specificity cuts both ways, however. The authentic Los Angeles locations bring an authentic Los Angeles police department along with them, and that’s where the film really goes off the rails.
Serial killer movies, as a genre, have always depended on a view of police work as a kind of secret brotherhood: The obsessed detective has come face-to-face with evils the public can’t understand, experiences that set him or her irrevocably apart from civilian life. There’s no reason that vision of policing as a psychologically damaging career has to devolve into copaganda, but it usually does, and The Little Things is a particularly egregious example. On its most basic level, it’s about police officers who form an unbreakable bond by covering up the accidental death of one civilian and the extrajudicial killing of another, which the film portrays as the kind of regrettable-but-necessary decision only other cops can understand. That’s not a great thesis in any telling, but by setting that story in the LASD, a department where deputy gangs get tattoos to celebrate the unbreakable bond they form by shooting civilians, a department that spent the summer beating protesters, the movie crosses the line from run-of-the-mill genre nonsense into bad taste. (The other option for a serial killer film set in Los Angeles in 1990, Daryl Gates’ LAPD, has its own problems.) Maybe the movie would work better if, like Se7en, it were set in an unnamed noir city instead of a real police department with real abuses, or if the script relied on more than genre shorthand to sell its noxious ending. As things stand, however, the only way to enjoy The Little Things is to ignore the big things.