The Little Things and Denzel's Killers
Denzel Washington has made a living playing lawmen: from cops (heroic, former, and crooked) and FBI agents to private investigators and ex-CIA operatives, he’s run the gamut and in some cases set the gold standard for the archetype. As such, it should come as no surprise that Washington has dipped a toe in the serial killer sub-genre of the crime thriller — throw a dart at a list of major movie stars in the nineties and there’s a decent chance they were in one — but Denzel’s particular string of such films is particularly illuminating, both in terms of his talents and of the joys and limitations of the genre itself.
The serial killer movie was of course nothing new by the 1990s, having been around since nearly the beginning of the film industry itself (1931 brought us Fritz Lang’s M, often considered to be one of the first in the genre), but that decade arguably redefined the subject twice over. After the critical and commercial failure of the first attempt to bring Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels to the screen (Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986), Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs signaled a renewed appetite for serial killer fare. Silence was of course a box office sensation and an awards juggernaut, becoming only the third film in Oscars history to win the “big five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay.
Four years later, another seismic release rocked the genre. Though David Fincher’s Seven didn’t come close to replicating Silence’s Oscar feat — it was only nominated in a single category, Best Film Editing, which it lost to Apollo 13 — the 1995 film held its own in regards to the box office and critical appraisal and arguably became the defining influence on the genre moving forward, at least for a time; watch any serial killer thriller from the back half of the nineties or the early 2000s and you’d be hard pressed to not see Seven’s dark, violent, and bleakly cynical mark.
By my count, Washington has starred in four serial killer movies, three of which were made in the nineties and the fourth — this year’s The Little Things — was written in the nineties and is very much of a piece with the decade’s output. But Washington’s first foray into the genre also stands as the outlier. Brett Leonard’s Virtuosity, released a month before Seven, has more in common with lesser Michael Crichton adaptations than it does with its serial killer brethren: the criminal in question is a computer program, SID (“Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous”) 6.7, which has been virtually infused with the brain patterns of dozens of history’s most notorious serial killers. It’s about as dumb as it sounds, and is mostly a (kind of fun) mess (reports are that Washington took on a good deal of creative control, for better or for worse), but is mostly notable for a rare feat — it’s one of the few movies in Washington’s filmography where his costar is significantly more entertaining. Sure, Washington has a high floor and is perfectly enjoyable as the convict/former cop hunting down SID 6.7 once he escapes to the real world, but Russell Crowe seems to be the only one who understands how bonkers the movie should be, turning in a gleefully unhinged performance as the literal killer app.
The next go-round was more what we might expect. 1998’s Fallen surrounds Washington with a who’s-who of accomplished actors (John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, James Gandolfini) but keeps him front and center as he battles a murderous, body-hopping demon. As great as that may sound, Fallen is unfortunately among the wave of Seven-inspired films that attempt to replicate the style without putting enough thought into the substance. Despite the more typically engaging turn from Washington, the heavy-handed script is so intent on over-explaining biblical concepts to the audience that his character ends up seeming like one of the dumbest detectives in the history of cinema. Funnily enough, Fallen’s primary saving grace is a depressingly bleak ending in the Seven vein, though even going out on a relatively high note isn’t enough to salvage such a pale imitation.
1999’s The Bone Collector presents the flip side of that coin: a resolution so unsatisfying that it undermines what had up until then been a serviceable, if silly, thriller. The Bone Collector takes cues from both Silence and Seven’s star duos, pairing Washington’s bed-bound quadriplegic forensic expert with Angelina Jolie’s young cop who’s carrying the weight of past trauma, and it mostly works — there are some clever proto-Saw death traps, director Phillip Noyce has a generally keen visual eye, and Washington plays his role with nuance and compassion — but again it’s let down by a “twist” ending that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and is oddly changed for the worse from the novel on which it’s based. Perhaps partially because of that built-in literary audience, The Bone Collector went on to be Washington’s most financially successful serial killer movie to date (we’ll of course never know how The Little Things might have fared in a normal release environment), but once again failed to move the critics. After three misses in a row and a twenty-plus year gap, it seemed like Washington was ready to be done with the genre for good.
Which brings us to The Little Things. Critical consensus would make it seem like the film should be lumped in with the three films above, destined to be a mediocre and forgotten curio in Denzel Washington’s filmography. To be fair, that may ultimately be the case — I’m not sure I have a convincing argument for its staying power, particularly under the circumstances of its release: straight to HBO Max with a limited theatre run, in late January, in the middle of a global pandemic that has studio filmmaking as we know it on the ropes. And yet, for my money The Little Things is a good sight better than any of Washington’s past forays into the genre; it may not be revolutionary, but it takes the right lessons from the likes of Seven, making its old-school approach feel refreshing rather than stale.
If The Little Things feels like a throwback to the era we’ve been discussing, that’s because at its core that’s exactly what it is. Director John Lee Hancock wrote the first draft of the film in the early nineties, post-Silence and pre-Seven, and a height-of-his-powers Steven Spielberg was initially slated to direct. After Spielberg backed out, Hancock went through discussions with Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito, but in the end it looked to be just another script that would never see the light of day until, almost thirty years later, Hancock had the opportunity and the cachet to direct the film himself. Now, brought into the modern day but still set in the nineties (always a convenient way to deal with ever more pervasive technology), The Little Things smartly plays on what it knows we like about that era of thrillers with the benefit of hindsight as to which ones worked and which ones didn’t — a tool the likes of Fallen and The Bone Collector didn’t have.
It helps that Washington, one of our all-time great actors, understands exactly how his screen presence has evolved in the intervening decades since he last was on the hunt for a serial killer. He’s not the young hotshot anymore, or even the slightly older mentor we see in The Bone Collector — he’s one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen now, and he uses that gravitas to his advantage. Washington’s Deputy Deacon is a contemplative man, clearly haunted by the past and looking to make amends when it appears like an old killer may have resurfaced. While Washington’s controlled bombast often makes the Oscar clips, his ability to make stillness just as magnetic is part of what makes him so special, something he uses to great effect here.
Washington’s The Little Things costars in many ways exemplify just how good he is at playing both levels. Rami Malek’s Detective Baxter is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness, with Malek playing things so muted for the majority of the runtime you’re worried he might have actually fallen asleep. On the other side of that coin you have Jared Leto — known more in recent years for his on-set antics than anything else, his tendency towards over-the-top strangeness ends up being put to good effect here. I’m skeptical he deserves the awards consideration he’s received so far, but he’s undeniably compelling as a weirdo who may or may not be a serial killer.
You wonder what The Little Things might have looked like had it been made twenty-five years ago. Would it have played like Fallen, mired in tedium due to the quieter script, salvaged by a satisfyingly bleak ending? Or would it have been more like The Bone Collector, sleek but not much more? As it stands, it manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of both, delivering not only a stronger narrative but a better vehicle for Washington, serving him up with a character arc with some meat on the bones rather than just another generic detective sampler he’s forced to make a meal out of on the strength of his own talent. While I’m not sure The Little Things will be well-remembered in the annals of film history, it does provide a blueprint for a throwback style within this genre that I wouldn’t mind seeing some more filmmakers put their own spin on in the near future — and if they’re looking for a lead, I’d like to think that Denzel Washington will be their first call.