*. “The past becomes the future, becomes the past, becomes the future, becomes the past . . .” That’s not quite Shakespeare but rather the drunken ramblings of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a cop with a past, and whose past is his future. You might even call him a burnt-out case. In the storied tradition of buddy-cop movies he’s paired in The Little Things with a buttoned-up case, the fresh-faced detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Together they are looking for a serial killer in 1990 L.A. who may or may not be Jared Leto. Heaven knows Mr. Leto looks and acts suspicious enough. But is he quite as creepy as Malek? That’s a tough call.
*. I begin with Deke’s line about the past becoming the future because it gets at the main feeling I had watching The Little Things. Of course, just in the one-line plot summary I’ve given you can tell it’s a genre picture that is following all the usual conventions. Deke and Jimmy are the odd couple. Their investigation is frustrated by police protocol and rules. Deke likes to break those rules, though not such conventions as making a wall of photos to stare at while he tries to put all the pieces together. There’s even a scene late in the movie where Leto says to Malek “You know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could be friends.” My jaw dropped when I heard this and I said (aloud!) “He did not just say that!” But he did.
*. You could say it’s darker and more ambiguous than the usual detective thriller. I think every review of it made some comparison to Se7en, but I think the closer Fincher connection is to Zodiac, especially with the open ending. Still, we’re on familiar ground here. Writer-director John Lee Hancock wanted to upset the usual paint-by-numbers serial killer plot, and that may have been true, at least to some extent, when he wrote it. This much is to his credit. But things had moved on.
*. The script had been written by Hancock way back in 1993. Now think about that. Nearly thirty years ago. And this is the point I wanted to make about the past becoming the future. In my notes on Fatale I mentioned how its mixing of neo-noir with Fatal Attraction was evidence of the nostalgic rut that our culture has fallen into, as described in the writings of critics like Kurt Andersen and Ross Douthat.
*. The basic idea here is that the twenty-first century has produced nothing new in terms of its popular art (music and film), and that it now just keeps itself going by remaking and remixing stuff from the 1980s and ’90s. I always want to dig my heels in against arguments like this because they sound too much like just the sort of thing that people my age (who were young in the 1980s and ’90s) would say. But there are days when I think there’s really something to it. Like when I listen to student dance parties playing songs that were hits thirty or forty years ago, or when I see a movie like this being released in 2021.
*. It was originally (that is, back in 1993) going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, or Danny DeVito, or Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty. In the end, Hancock took it on himself, and he does a respectable job. He can handle suspense, and Thomas Newman’s score helps. The script, however, is nonsense. The character of Baxter didn’t work for me at all, especially at the end where he is easily manipulated by Leto’s slimey Albert Sparma. As Clint Eastwood might have reminded him, had he been helming this, there are two types of people in the world: those with bullets in their gun and those who dig.
*. Another script point, while I’m at it. Why on earth doesn’t Baxter just meet with Sparma at the bar? That way he can keep his eye on him, and even talk to him all night if he has to. Sparma seems like a lonely guy and would probably like to spend an evening talking to a real detective. But instead they go with a plan that’s guaranteed to only keep him out of the house for a few minutes.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Hancock’s writing anyway. I believe he wrote this right after A Perfect World, which was a film I hated. The Little Things isn’t quite as portentous and drawn out, but you can tell he was being tugged in that direction. What’s with the cross on the hill? Who is the Christ figure? Leto looks the closest. And I don’t think the banter all that great either. “Your dick is as hard as Chinese arithmetic”? Is Chinese arithmetic hard?
*. I guess the period atmosphere worked, though as I mentioned in my notes on Fatale it’s striking how movies like this make us feel as though the ’90s weren’t that long ago. But were the freeways in southern California really so deserted you could drive down them in reverse and never encounter another car? I don’t remember that.
*. All told, it’s still a reasonably effective thriller, though I thought Malek mostly wasted and Washington was performing just a couple of notches above mailing it in. Not a great movie, but if we really are living in a culture of nostalgia then it may be the best we can expect. In resurrecting a thirty-year-old script they were at least going back to the source.