★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Directed by John Lee Hancock   |   Released 11 March 2021   |   Runtime: 2h 18min

An atmospheric thriller, but lacking the bite of its peers

The Little Things is an atmospheric and moody crime thriller. It was released by Warner Bros. Pictures and had a month-long simultaneous release on the HBO Max streaming service. The film was written by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The HighwayMen) in 1993, originally for Steven Spielberg to direct. Spielberg however felt the story was too dark for him, and after numerous others being attached to the script, Hancock decided to direct it himself.


Set in 1990 Los Angeles, The Little Things follows Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon and detective Jim Baxter as they investigate a string of murders. Their hunt for the serial killer eventually leads them to a loner and possible suspect, making for an interesting game of cat and mouse.

The film does a lot of things right for its genre, but it doesn’t have the bite of its peers – some, who have set the bar incredibly high (here’s looking at you, Se7en).

"It's the little things that are important, Jimmy. It's the little things that get you caught"

- Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (The Little Things)

The Little Things definitely sold its appeal through the cast, and the leading trio. First up is Denzel Washington (The Equalizer, The Book of Eli, Training Day), and with quite the career span and variety of roles, he’s still our go-to hero of the movies. Washington also has a hefty amount of police or armed forces characters under his belt – we’ve lost count at how many times he’s played this kind of role, so as he wears the Sheriff hat to play Deputy Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon in The Little Things, it’s familiar territory for him, and us. Washington is convincing as the exhausted Deputy with his own flaws; early on you spot something in his character that hints to a deeper backstory, soon to be revealed. He’s a dab hand at piecing the puzzle together, and his eyes tell the story of a haunted past – he evokes sympathy and likeability.

Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody, Mr. Robot, Papillon) plays the recently appointed lead detective, Jimmy Baxter, who teams up with Deke to solve the latest terrors soaring through the LA streets. Baxter is a bright new addition to the force and still bears that ‘fresh out of studies’ composure, seemingly debuting the brains, good morals, and the new guy tag… which may just get him into hot water. Malek is good and similarly engaging – always an interesting actor to watch. However, whether it’s down to some type-casting in the last few performances from him, you can’t help feeling that he is still in tune with the oddness of previous characters, and possibly overplaying this one. There were times during the film that Malek’s expressions and demeanor caused unintentional mixed messages about Baxter’s intentions, and I found myself conjuring up side-plots and revelations that never ended up happening.

Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Dallas Buyers Club, Suicide Squad) offers a performance worth praising. I’ve followed his acting career over the years and do believe he’s more than his rockstar self, offering a range of talents and often nailing the delivery when it comes to his mix of roles. It takes some time for Leto to take centre stage as Albert Sparma, but the fun starts when he does make his first appearance (after nearly an hour into the film). An eerie character, Sparma’s presence seemingly takes inspiration from Charles Manson, as Leto wears long black hair past his shoulders, paired with a beard and a hollow stare. The actor certainly looks different as he dons a prosthetic nose and fake teeth, but it’s how he holds his character that makes all the difference. Leto’s body language is one of awkwardness as he stays in the shadows, speaking with a whisper. He successfully forms a character that makes us so uncomfortable that we fail to ask the right question; is Sparma the real serial killer? It’s no wonder Leto was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes.


The Little Things is a good example of a thriller that looks good and sets the right mood. It feels nostalgic, throwing it back to the 90s with the right set pieces and its fairly formulaic style of those serial killer thrillers of the same era. Hancock and cinematographer John Schwartzman (Pearl Harbour) play with lighting and casting shadows to keep the eerie atmosphere, and whilst some of the takes are nothing new, they work.

Take the victim running out of the darkness into the glaring headlights of a truck, to a lone figure draped in the spotlight of a police torch, to two shadowy men looming over a bridge, tainted in red. There are more stand out and unexpected shots too, like Washington’s glum hotel room, decorated with physicialisations of his failures as he’s surrounded by the bodies of those he has let down. Whilst not as graphic as its peers in the genre, the few uses of grotesque imagery in the apartment building and morgue scenes brings together the reality and darkness within the story.

"How’s the trunk space?"

- Albert Sparma (The Little Things)

Where the plot disappoints is in its predictability and rather anti-climatic ending. There was a lot of build up to a sort of “What’s in the box” moment, but, unlike Se7en it fell a little short. There was no huge revelation, no thrill and no draw-dropper of a final take. For a film with a slow burner of a start, I expected better. Apart from Denzel’s part, Malek and Leto’s characters also weren’t explored enough, and the film could have been a lot more grittier if Sparma’s persona was dissected and developed further. 

The Little Things is still worthy of a watch and your time. The main thing is that it’s enjoyable and you won’t find yourself wishing to turn it off before it’s finished – the cast and cinematography make that possible, but it’s natural to want for a better ending. It’s no Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac, but it is a nostalgic and smooth thriller that takes you back into the 90s cop v serial killer trope.

The Little Things is available to rent on Prime Video.

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