There are few sub-genres more universally enjoyed than the Sad Cop Crime Thriller. Mostly dormant since the early aughts, the Sad Cop Crime Thriller™ sub-genre often strongarms the ‘Best Films of All Time Lists’, counting Silence of the Lambs (1991), Se7en (1995), and The Zodiac (2005) among its heavy hitters.
The Little Things, a special handshake drop from Warner Bros. and HBO MAX (cuz pandemic), seeks to take us back to that simpler time. A time when cops had complete disregard for the limitations of the law, bad guys sported androgynous haircuts too greasy to actually be called androgynous, female roles were limited to wives and girlfriends, and every single cop ever had a ‘one that got away’ tucked in their back pocket.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things takes place in the early 90s. Nope, it’s not based on a true story, which is a perfectly reasonable assumption, but the time period was likely chosen because cellphones are the bane of a serial killer’s existence, and victims on the grid getting themselves out of peril right quick makes it much harder to be all cinematic and stuff. Also, the first draft of this screenplay was allegedly penned in ’93 (with Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito attached) which might explain the film’s outdated setting. ..And tone, which I’ll get to.
Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington, Training Day) returns to L.A, his old stomping grounds, to collect some evidence. A little long in the tooth and surrounded by hot young coppers, mainly his replacement – LAPD Detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek, Buster’s Mal Heart), we quickly learn Deke has been stagnating in his life and career for some time. Something drove him away from L.A, and whatever it was, it was big enough to leave his family and career prospects behind him.
Though only stopping by, Deke is quickly pulled in on a case as a killer stalks the city, leaving strangely staged crime scenes in his wake. Partnering with his replacement Jimmy, the pair suss out clues and try to solve a crime that has consumed the both of them. While crossing off their list of suspects, wild-eyed weirdo Albert Sparma (Jared Leto, Panic Room) crosses their tracks, and even weirder- willfully refuses to move from the speeding train of our coppers’ hatred-driven obsession.
With their eyes now laser focussed on Sparma, these two cops need to get the evidence they need to prove they’ve found their man.
“A slow to the starting line cat and mouse game..”
A slow to the starting line cat and mouse game, The Little Things struggles to unleash the definitely-in-full-method Leto as Sparma. Thin, gaunt, and greasy with a protruding little potbelly, Sparma is as slick and slimy as audiences would want a final act mastermind to be, only- the film keeps him too close to the chest, never allowing him to break loose and wreak any havoc. We quickly grow bored watching him on Deke & Jimmy’s nightly stakeouts, because the film never quite takes him far enough. Which is a real shame, because Leto is fantastically cringeworthy as the Shirley Temple sipping serial killer.
Denzel Washington is effortlessly perfect, but he slips into Deke like an old pair of socks – it’s definitely a character he’s worn before, and will probably have to throw in the bin soon. Malek is charming and bright, although he’s weirdly still sporting his Freddy Mercury accent and mouth posture from Bohemian Rhapsody, which – it’s L.A. in the 90s, so I guess flies.
And though I ragged a bit on its setting, The Little Things does groove with some great cinematography and setpieces within the L.A. scene – particularly a neon timelapse outside a nudie bar. Tom Newman’s score is bold and allowed to flourish over pretty grim scenes and discoveries, properly setting the tone of a plot that can sometimes frustrate.
While the film unravels in a perfectly unexpected way (as is required of Sad Cop Crime Thrillers™), perhaps The Little Things biggest fault is its lack of awareness of today’s audience. What would have flown in ’93 definitely does not in 2020, and I highly doubt cops running about the city, breaking into apartments warrantless, and working above, under, and around the law is going to fly with the majority of viewers. This film hinges on our good guys Breaking Bad, and a rather ambiguous ending as to their behavior being morally sound won’t be an easy pill to swallow for some.
The Little Things hits theatres on January 29th, as well as landing on the HBO Max streaming platform for 31 days. Are you a Sad Cop Crime Thriller™ fan? Chat with us about your faves on Discord, Reddit, Twitter, and in our Facebook Group!