Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) talking to a dead victim in the morgue. He is investigating her death as part of a series of recent murders. (Screengrab courtesy of Sydney Kaelin)
The Little Things, an old-fashioned serial killer thriller, released in theaters and on HBO Max on January 29.
The film follows Denzel Washington as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former L.A. police officer who now works as a lowly deputy sheriff in Kern County, California.
The story, set in 1990, unfolds when Deacon returns to L.A. and unofficially joins the investigation of a serial killer terrorizing young women in the city. Deacon joins forces with his replacement, Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek.
As they search for the killer, the memories of a brutal case he never solved haunts Deacon. The victims of the past case torment him as visions in the night.
Deacon accidentally shot and killed a victim while working the past case, which causes him to struggle with guilt. The victim escaped the killer and suddenly appeared while Deacon was investigating the scene of a double homicide. Deacon’s coworkers covered up the murder.
The prospect of solving this new case in the hopes of also resolving the past one consumes Deacon.
His obsession stems from his frustration in leaving the case unsolved and the fact that his life fell apart during the investigation. Deacon worked the past case so hard he had a heart attack, lost his marriage, and lost his job in one fell swoop.
While looking for leads, Deacon suspects a loner named Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto. Circumstantial evidence and Sparma’s unsettling personality leads Deacon and Baxter to consider him the likely killer.
The movie becomes a waiting game as Deacon and Baxter try to catch Sparma in the act. and Sparma toys with them.
Towards the end of the movie, Sparma lures Baxter to a desert by promising to reveal the location of a missing girl’s body. After futilely digging for a nonexistent body and Sparma threatening his family, Baxter snapped and struck him with the shovel.
The blow unintentionally killed Sparma, and when Deacon arrives, he helps him cover up the murder. Baxter’s guilt changes him from a promising young detective to a despondent cop on leave because while the film alludes to Sparma being the killer, it is never proven.
The film focuses more on the psychological effects of police work and less on the action. This would have been a lot less successful if not for the exceptional acting. Denzel’s anguished performance, Malek’s transformation, and Leto’s creepy persona sells the movie.
I especially found the parallels drawn between Deacon and Baxter interesting, if a little obvious. It’s clear that Baxter is almost a younger version of Deacon.
Baxter is a respected detective with a loving wife and two daughters, just like Deacon used to be. Baxter also killed someone and his coworker covered it up, just like Deacon.
By the end of the movie, it is hard to feel empathy for the characters given they are fundamentally flawed.
With award-winning actors, a nostalgic setting, and a compelling story, the “The Little Things” had a lot of potential. However, I could not help but feel that it missed the mark.
The character development was not sufficient, leaving viewers with unanswered questions, particularly about Deacon’s fall from grace and Sparma’s culpability.
While Sparma was obviously devious, not disclosing Sparma’s true actions leaves viewers with many questions. Even though the lack of answers was intentional to build suspense, I still found it frustrating.
The build up of suspense throughout the movie deteriorated abruptly during the climax. The film seemed to be preparing to reveal Sparma’s sins but his sudden death left the crimes unresolved. Unfortunately, the strong cast and striking cinematography did not make up for its unsatisfying conclusion.