Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 27, 2021)
In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs offered a thriller with an unusually strong pedigree. A commercial and critical hit, it remains arguably the most successful serial killer movie of all-time.
In 2021, The Little Things offered a thriller with an unusually strong pedigree. The film got mixed reviews and lackluster box office – even given its release during the COVID-19 pandemic – so it seems unlikely to remain remembered 30 months from now, much less 30 years.
Set in late 1990, a serial killer stalks young women in Los Angeles. A former LAPD officer, Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) now works in rural Kern County, but he returns to his old stomping grounds when he needs to collect evidence related to a case
While in LA, Deacon notices similarities between an old series of crimes on which he worked and the current murder spree. Deacon joins forces with hotshot LAPD Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) to search for the killer, a path that eventually leads them to a shifty character named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto).
And by “eventually”, I mean “about halfway into the movie”. Indeed, Sparma arises as a prominent character so late in Things that I felt tempted to omit mention of him, as his presence might veer into spoiler territory.
That said, we know a movie like Things will eventually lead toward a suspect. While the film takes longer than most to identify the potential killer, no viewer should feel surprised when one finally emerges.
This choice gives Things an unexpected twist, as flicks of this sort usually make their villains obvious. Look at Lambs, for instance: it allowed the audience knowledge of Jame Gumb fairly early.
In truth, I brought up the comparisons to Lambs mainly due to chronology. Since Things hits screens almost exactly 30 years after the older film’s debut, the latter leaped to mind, and an early scene in which a potential victim sings along with a pop song as she drives clearly elicits memories of Catherine Martin and “American Girl”.
Still, the “pedigree” question remains apt, as one doesn’t usually find so much prominent talent in a genre flick like this. Washington, Malek and Leto account for four Oscars and 10 nominations among them.
Of course, Washington earned two of the four trophies and eight of the 10 noms, but nonetheless, that remains a lot of Oscar gold for a serial killer flick. Throw in writer/director John Lee Hancock – who made 2009’s Oscar-nominted Blind Side - and you find much stronger talent than typical for this genre.
Though those areas prompt memories of Lambs, Things usually comes across as much more closely inspired by another serial killer classic: 1995’s Se7en. If I went into comparisons, I would enter spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Things clearly nods actively in the direction of David Fincher’s flick.
Probably the biggest point of similarity comes from the aforementioned length of time the audience waits for a reveal of the suspected killer. In Se7en, we see John Doe’s handiwork from almost literally the start, but we don’t actually meet the character himself until quite late in the proceedings.
Technically, Things introduces a murderer right off the bat, as the movie’s opening scene shows an attempted assault. After that, however, we don’t get much action in terms of the antagonist’s work, as the movie focuses nearly exclusively on Deacon/Baxter investigation.
This seems like a mistake. In Se7en, part of the tension came from the extreme nature of John Doe’s crimes. We could live without the usual cat and mouse or anxiety-provoking assaults because the movie made the killings so provocative even though only viewed in their aftermath.
None of this occurs during Things, as the killer sticks with fairly banal crimes. These would suffice if we got more of a thriller element that showed some danger. However, after that effective opening scene, the sporadic glimpses of crimes feel bland and not especially scary.
This leaves Things as an odd tale because it lacks an antagonist. Again, although we didn’t formally meet John Doe until late in Se7en, his fingerprints danced all over the story, whereas in Things, the killer seems anonymous.
Until we finally meet Sparma, the man who may or may not bear responsibility for the crimes. Things makes out Sparma to be a Grade A oddball, one that Leto plays to the Weird Creep Hilt.
Normally I would groan at such an overtly theatrical performance – and I still do roll my eyes a bit at Leto’s over the top tone – but at least Sparma adds some form of life to the proceedings. Prior to his arrival, Things feels borderline monotonous, not the least of which stems from the bland nature of our lead detectives.
Talented though both actors may be, Washington and Malek show precious little chemistry together. The movie initially sets them up as contrasts and even includes an introduction that posits them as cops who will butt heads, but oddly, Things immediately forgets the animosity between Baxter and Deacon and makes them buddies.
Not that the “mismatched partners” theme would seem creative, but at least it would add some much needed dramatic tension. Deacon and Baxter feel flat and underwritten through virtually the entire movie.
Things attempts some dimensionality via Deacon’s backstory, as it teases us with the nature of his LAPD past from start to finish. While we hear of his ignominious departure from the force early in the flick, we don’t discover the full truth until late in the tale.
Honestly, this theme seems like a MacGuffin, as Deacon’s background ultimately means little. I’d prefer a more straightforward version of the story, one that leaves out these unsatisfying character elements, as they do little more than distract from the broader narrative.
It doesn’t help that Things finds a slew of contrivances to thicken the plot. Some seem vaguely believable, whereas others come across as wholly ludicrous. They damage the story’s credibility.
As much as these comments imply I hated Things, I didn’t. I like the genre and the movie does enough to keep the viewer with it across its two hours or so.
Also, I appreciate the movie’s refusal to tie a neat bow on the story. This will likely make some viewers irate, as films like this usually give us tidy conclusions, but the manner in which Things leaves some matters up for grabs shows guts on the part of the filmmakers and gives the movie an unusual vibe.
I just wish we got more substance along the way, mainly in terms of the usual serial killer tension and thrills. Things occasionally stirs to life but too much of the film feels dull and unfocused for it to truly succeed.