While true crime has been relegated to the documentary miniseries found on Netflix or Hulu – a kind of killer craze that has swept the nation since “Making a Murderer” and “Serial” – there’s been a noticeable gap in the whodounits of movies since. Murder mysteries, whether comedic or grisly, often gave enough details to the detectives, and enough problems to the criminal, that it managed to tell a dense story in a way we could all agree with. But now the acumen of the average viewer has risen. Now no murder movie feels earned, and The Little Things, doesn’t change that.
It’s the early 1990s. Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is beat up and on a self-imposed exile from a past case, one that bears an eerily similar set up to the binding and stabbing to be found in an ongoing case headed by Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). For Deacon who crosses paths, he’s on a standard errand trip to testing evidence. But Deacon gets curious and Baxter notices and he figures that the legacy detective can give him a few pointers along the way. It’s a standard set up, and as they close in on the supposed killer, a long-haired beer-bellied Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) who seems to fit all the categories, the rest of the story seems ready to tie up. But a couple slip ups along the way cause the case to peel out of control, leaving an ambiguous ending that is risky.
Unfortunately, it is not rewarded. Top to bottom, the film is a trainwreck, to such an extent that I am going to try and convince you to not watch the movie.
Right from the beginning, the editing in the film is jarring, inconsistent, and sometimes at odds with the development of the story. Joe Deacon walks into his old precinct in Los Angeles. We have the press room with Jim Baxter behind a glass wall, and we have Deacon meeting some of his old comrades outside. It could have been an excellent use of establishing shot, a wide angle lens to allow us time to take in all the clever details. Baxter seeing Deacon a second time and registering it, Deacon’s curiosity mounting. And while we do get these plot developments, what we have instead is some incredibly jarring cuts, some barely past a second, in order to take in…what exactly? The awkward cuts continue as the pair of detectives explore a crime scene. Rather than use camera pans, they cut erratically and without purpose. In a film that is about evidence, about the “little things”, the camera actively impedes us from gathering details with the detectives, which has to be some kind of sin in the cinematography Bible.
Some mistakes seem so obvious it’s hard to imagine they made it into a big actor film. In one diner scene, an old colleague Detective Sal mentions that he has to leave, but not before offering his home for Deacon to stay overnight. Turns out Deacon’s lab tests are getting run again and he has to stay another day. Deacon declines and shakes Sal’s hand. We think that they are saying goodbye. Baxter immediately takes his spot and suggests that Deacon ride along with them, to check out the crime scene. Deacon, curious, agrees. The very next scene has Deacon, Sal, and Baxter all walking along the street towards the apartment. Any director of any skill would know that this is a terrible transition. The brain recognizes people saying goodbye, but they’re actually saying hello. They’re getting to know each other. This is an easy script fix that managed to make it all the way into the film. Simply have Sal not say goodbye, and have Baxter come into the diner and say, “They called. They’re ready for us. Deacon, would you like to tag along?” And then Sal looks at Deacon in an ominous way. A way that says “You sure you want to go back into this rabbit hole?” For a script that has been making its way through Hollywood since 1993, you’d think this could have been avoided. But it wasn’t, and the way that scene plays out now is either lazy or incompetent.
David Fincher, or even Shane Black, manage to do a mystery in less time, with more details, and even more to say about the characters. By the end of the movie, we feel we know little about Jared Leto, who must cycle between innocent screwy and malevolent murderer at the flip of a hat (which luckily he can do) in order to keep you guessing. But each character barely has time to build up some degree of characterization beyond silly archetypes. What they do have time for, it seems, is staking out houses. Characters sit, yawn, grab their faces, in a not so different way than the viewer does when watching The Little Things. There’s a reason that real police work is hardly shown in movies.
Most egregious are the lapses in logic that begin to occur into the second act of the film. After a botched interview where they have nothing on Sparma, Deacon recommends searching his apartment while he’s out without a warrant, a known TV trope. What’s not a trope is Baxter calling Sparma and wishing to make the botched interview up to him personally by inviting him over for a drink at a bar. Rather than at the very least meeting him at the bar and keeping him occupied (as well as learn a little about Sparma along the way), Baxter simply stands him up, which make it easy for Leto’s character to determine why they led him out of the house. Police descend on the apartment after an “anonymous” tip of an officer down, and Denzel Washington has to climb the roof. Murder mystery turns screwball comedy as Baxter has to pick Deacon up on the other side like low-paid hospice care.
The amount of tailing and staking out that occurs to see if Sparma does something criminal is wasted opportunity. They do nothing to find incriminating evidence by investigating his workplace, the places he visits (like a gentlemen club), or the people he interacts with, none of the rigorous investigative work that all of Deacon and Baxter’s coworkers claim they’re good at. Nope, just sitting and waiting, staking out a place that any beat cop could work. And they’re not good at that either. Deacon’s wristwatch has been going out, and rather than take care of that problem at any other moment, he decides to go into the convenience store directly underneath Albert Sparma’s apartment to get coffee and watch batteries. The person in line in front of Deacon delays by counting out dimes and nickels to pay for God knows what, leading to a bizarre encounter between Sparma and Baxter outside. Sparma calls the pay phone, and then puts his phone down immediately in order to scurry over and scare Baxter in the parking lot as he answers outside. Baxter, exhausted and twitchy, pulls a gun on Sparma. Sparma says he can take Baxter to the place he buried one of the victims. What is more outrageous than this suggestion is the fact that Baxter takes him up on it, and drives out into the desert to hear what Leto’s character has to say. By the time Deacon comes out with two black coffees, he has to quickly tail the two into the desert. When he catches up, Baxter has killed Sparma in a spout of rage with a shovel, but not before digging several empty graves to Sparma’s delight.
The lapses in logic don’t stop there. Baxter is told that one of the victims wore her hair up in a red barrette, a fairly common feature in the early 1990s. At the end of the film, Deacon sends Baxter an envelope with the red barrette in it that he supposedly found in Sparma’s apartment. Cut to Deacon as he’s burning evidence in a fifty gallon drum, and the camera shows us over his shoulder a cardboard holder of barrettes with the red one missing. It implies he bought the red barrette to soothe Baxter’s conscience. This twist is anything but. If the murders continued with the same MO, it implies that they got the wrong guy. If they stop, they should feel only slightly better about themselves. Suppose Deacon bought the barrette and the murders continued. Surely that friendship would be over. And is this supposed to make the young detective feel better? Part of representing the law is letting the law do its work. Vigilante justice is a nonstarter. The Whites by Richard Price does a much better job of exploring this concept in every single way.
We can’t even be sure by the end of the film if the murders are linked, because we barely have a sense of how many murders there are, what we know about the victims, and the varied ways in which they are idiosyncratically killed. All we really know is that they’re bound, spied on voyeuristically, and sometimes repositioned after death. One key detail is that a recent victim likely knew the suspect, due to being blinded by a bag. This detail is never followed up on.
The only details we do receive that have any weight concern why Deacon was exiled in the first place, and that concerns a botched investigation where, when Deacon heard bushes rattling near a double murder crime scene, he shoots without identifying his target, killing a possible third victim hiding out from the killer. The coroner covers it up, calling it death by multiple stab wounds. Perhaps I don’t know much about cadavers, but I am assuming that once the investigation is over, the body is returned to the family. Judging by the fact that she is young, she likely still has family around to recover the body. And any cursory glance at her chest would reveal a puncture hole the size of a bullet. And the lack of any stab wounds. And an exit wound in her back.
It is a drama film without deep characters, a procedural without, well, procedure. It’s a mystery without details, murders without victims, action without common sense, and at no point does the film manage to communicate a sense of technical language or personality. No shot feels anything beyond utilitarian, which is fine if you’re Clint Eastwood. But this was not Clint Eastwood.
Don’t watch this.