Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things,” set in Los Angeles in 1990, is a kind of old school thriller that almost vanishes from recent Hollywood mainstream production. The film isn’t just set in 1990, it was reportedly written in 1993 and had been passed down by directors like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood (I believe Eastwood would have been a perfect choice for this project).

No wonder the film echoes some of the most masterful serial killer thrillers during that time period, especially “The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)” and “Se7en (David Fincher, 1995).” This type of story – detectives who are eaten by the crimes they can’t solve – mostly be told on television nowadays such as “True Detective” (an incredible first season but two disappointing follow-ups) and “Mindhunter” (one of the top shows on Netflix by David Fincher).

Now brought to screen by Hancock himself, “The Little Things” is a slow-burn character-driven thriller that likely doesn’t meet audience expectations. Denzel Washington (one of the greatest actors in history, no one will disagree) plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a sheriff’s deputy in the desolate Kern County. He used to be a homicide detective in Los Angeles for many years, but a serial-murder case that he failed to solve drove him mad. Now, there’s another serial-killer targeting young girls in the city, and it reawakens the haunting memories of unsolved murders a long time ago. During his trip back to Los Angeles, he meets his old colleagues and also meets Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, the second Oscar-winning actor in the film), a young promising detective who wants to solve the case badly. Jim wants to borrow Deke’s experience and skill of noticing “the little things” at the crime scene, and Deke tries to prevent Jim from following his footsteps.

Their number one suspect is Albert Sparma (Jared Leto, the third Oscar-winning actor here), a soft-speaking repairman with a sort-of-psycho persona. Leto’s performance is electrifying and menacing. With his fussy appearance, he’s like a stray dog that comes from the darkest, filthiest corner in the city. Albert plays a dangerous game with the cops, and whether he cruelly killed those girls increasingly consumes Jim, just like what the unsolved crimes used to do to Deke.

Throughout the decade, director Hancock’s works give us an appreciation of old school Hollywood pride like “The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks, and “The Founder.” “The Little Things” prioritizes detectives’ state-of-mind over the murder itself, and the film unapologetically doesn’t bother to answer the burning whodunit question to the audience. “The Little Things” obviously echoes “Se7en” with its characters, style, even ending, it also makes me think of “Zodiac” (David Fincher again?! This is his third film that appears in this review) which is a perfect case study for a decades-long unsolvable investigation.

“The Little Things” is a film that terrifically finds the moral trauma that haunts the men who are drowning in the mystery. Director Hancock and his A-list cast freak us out by turning the obsession to justice into a muddled limbo that traps the subjects, and us, too.

GRADE: B-

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  • Distributor: Warner Bros.
  • Production: Gran Via and Warner Bros.
  • Director: John Lee Hancock
  • Writer: John Lee Hancock
  • Producer: John Lee Hancock and Mark Johnson
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, and Glenn Morshower
  • “The Little Things” opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Jan. 29, 2021

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