“The story of the victims. It has to be told.” Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark (2020), HBO
28 years is a long time for a script to sit around. Any genre will undergo fundamental changes in that time, responding to cultural shifts and critiques that adjust not only pacing and style but the very focus of the genre itself, leaving your work a relic of the past if still unproduced.
And when that genre has risen in popularity and been claimed by a whole new group of storytellers? Well, you should probably file that script away and never let it see the light of day.
That’s pretty much what’s happened to The Little Things, a movie written by John Lee Hancock 28 years ago when the crime thriller was largely about troubled cops ferreting out grisly, sadistic murderers. The mechanisms of that era have been copied and pasted onto this film, so much so that it either lifts from or is wearily similar to Se7en (I’m not precisely sure whether the script was done before or after Fincher’s hit came out). There’s the aging cop who’s already been worn down, the young detective just starting to be affected by the job, and the man toying with them who may or may not be guilty, which doesn’t really matter because he’s drawn as such an incarnation of evil that he’s obviously a bad guy, even if he’s not their bad guy.
‘90s crime thrillers, and Hancock’s lost in time new movie, are less whodunits than psychological explorations of the people solving these cases day after day, year after year, awash in the grime of humanity. One of the big changes since this era, one I would argue can be traced to the rise in popularity of true crime, has been a shift away from the cops and criminals to put more focus on the victims themselves. The genre has been reframed not as a peep at the salacious underbelly of society but as something that permeates everyday life for huge swaths of people. No longer is it about men wringing their hands over a novel threat to the women in their lives. Instead, it’s about the people who were taught to hold their car keys as a weapon, to not run at night, to modify their behavior to protect them from very real dangers that, tragically, they still weren’t able to avoid.
The Little Things actually starts off with an impressive nod to this notion. The film opens with an attack by the serial killer meant to jolt the audience into the movie’s tension-filled world. We see a young woman driving alone at night. A car ominously speeds up from behind and passes her, coming to stop up ahead as if to block her way. It’s here that I began to cheer. The woman, it turns out, is no damsel in distress. She does the things so many people have been taught to do: don’t stop, get away, find other people. She careens around the parked car and into a gas station. The cat and mouse scene plays out for a while longer, but the woman continuously makes all the right decisions and, thankfully, lives. It’s a sequence that acknowledges that women don’t come into these situations as innocent lambs, that many of us are prepared and ready for the worst, and it gives us a survivor to check in with as the case unfolds.
Except from then on, the movie abandons any interest in the women who appear in this world. To say The Little Things is a story about men would be an understatement. It’s a story exclusively, maddeningly of men in a situation where men have been the most examined in pop culture and are the least interesting characters in the story.
Its dismissal of women is so profound that when Denzel Washington’s gruff old cop takes the young whippersnapper played by Rami Malek out to a crime scene, he warns that there will be beaten, mutilated, murdered women that Malek will own. Own. Such a dehumanizing word. Such a dehumanizing notion. This isn’t just a story of men, it’s a story of men who feel ownership of women they never knew, who look at a dead body and see not the life that has been taken from the world but the burden that body has put on them.
The film centers this revolting notion as its narrative drive, and granted, it’s one that’s common among ‘90s crime thrillers. However, it’s a notion that was quickly pushed aside as female storytellers gained a foothold in the genre and pointed out that the women in these stories matter. To so obliviously rehash it now is simultaneously offensive and boring, and that’s mostly how The Little Things plays: offensive and boring. No amount of slick story beats and scene chewing from Washington, Malek, and Jared Leto (who plays the appropriately creepy potential killer) can save such a thoughtlessly outdated premise. It’s a script that, once the ‘90s ended, should’ve stayed filed away, its value only as a warning to never make such drivel again.
Release: available in theaters and on HBO Max on January 29th. Leaving HBO Max on February 28th.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto