The Little Things opens with a notice of "October 1990" but whether that was intended to signal the time it was set or the time is was conceived in I cannot answer. The Little Things, while not a bad film, got in its own way too often for it to be able to rise above a substandard Seven knock-off.
Kern County Deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is ordered to go to Los Angeles to collect certain evidence. He does not want to go back to his old haunts, as the film reveals bit by by what drove him from being a respected LA homicide detective to a mere deputy far away from Los Angeles.
Deputy Deacon comes just as the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department is facing a serial killer. Sargent Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) is not too keen on this old has-been getting involved in his case but involved he does become when the murders match those of the case that drove Deacon to distraction and eventually out of Los Angeles.
Now working together with Deacon albeit on an unofficial capacity, both zero in their prime suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a repairman with a criminal past and a too-calm & creepy manner. Sparma taunts them both in the way only master criminals do. He is able to manipulate both circumstances and especially Baxter until the Sargent makes a fateful decision. Only Deacon, who himself is haunted by a mistake in his career, can guide our rising cop to live with his sins.
The Little Things is hampered by some unfortunate clichés. The chief cliché in writer/director John Lee Hancock's screenplay is Leto both in character and performance. Albert Sparma is from the "supergenius" school of criminals, ones that are able to stay five hundred steps ahead of the police in every way. It stretches believability to see how Sparma was able to accurately figure Deacon or Baxter were going to break into his apartment. What seems downright ludicrous is how he managed to call the police and convince them that there was an "officer down" at the time of the break-in.
Add to that a very bizarre situation where Baxter willingly goes alone with Sparma with the vaguest promise of finding the body of a missing person. Baxter does not wait for Deacon. He doesn't hold Sparma until he can get help. Instead, he willingly puts his life in danger with no guarantee he'll make it out alive.
Leto's whole performance is almost spoof of these types of master criminals. He speaks in this deliberately calm manner, full of theatrical body movements and quietly taunting words. It's almost humorous how over-acted the role is. At his interrogation, Deacon calls Baxter and asks "You got a feeling he's enjoying this?", and I genuinely wondered if Washington was asking Malek if Leto was enjoying overacting.
Right or wrong, The Little Things has more than a passing resemblance to Seven. I figure the similarities were coincidental, such as when Sparma taunts Baxter about his wife and daughters. However, both are about eager young cops and grizzled veterans teaming up to solve a series of murders by a psychopathic and psychopathically brilliant serial killer. It even features to make the grizzled veteran black and the eager young cop white.
Again, I'm sure it was coincidence but it doesn't take away from a certain lack of originality. Add to that the times The Little Things aimed for original it ended up being a bit much. I know Deacon carries guilt over what drove him out of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department. However, the visions of the dead women coming to him at his sleazy hotel don't quite work as well as they could have.
You also have "symbolic" moments that end up accidentally funny due to their overt nature. Having Peggy Marsh's I Will Follow Him play as Baxter and Deacon literally follow Sparma is eye-rolling, as is when Deacon's beloved R&B oldies station sign off permanently to a new format as he leaves Los Angeles.
If there's anything good in The Little Things, it is Denzel Washington, an actor who elevates his material. His monologue with a victim's corpse is a moving and deep piece of acting. One wishes his character had been stripped of the backstory and let this case drive the chaos his life would later have. Malek did his best but at times seem to try too hard to play the smarter, cockier detective though he was good at the scenes of Baxter's domestic life.
The Little Things could have been more than what it turned out to be. A little unbalanced between Washington's quiet performance and Leto's attention-seeking one, with Malek in the middle, The Little Things is not a failure but it could have been more.