The Little Things is a 2021 Neo Noir / Police Procedural Thriller film directed by John Lee Hancock and released on January 29, 2021 by Warner Bros. Pictures and though HBO Max. It stars Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto.
The movie takes place in October 1990 when Kern County Sheriff Deputy Joe "Deke" Deacon is tasked to head to the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department to secure forensic evidence related to an active murder case. He later joins LASD Detective Jim Baxter to the scene of a murder case, which reminds Deke of a similar case he once worked on when he was with the LASD.
Meanwhile, a woman named Ronda Rathbun was declared missing one night after being followed by a suspicious vehicle. The LASD leans on a few suspects before Albert Sparma is brought in a suspect since he was near some of the murder scenes.
With the FBI being called in, Baxter decides to go and ask Deke for assistance in solving the case. However, he was warned that he shouldn't go down the same path like Deke did... obsessed and determined to get the suspect.
The Little Things contains examples of:
- The '90s: The film takes place in the Fall of 1990. However there are no signs of big hair, gumby fades, grunge, or common fashions of the era. Likewise most cars seen are actually from the 70’s and 80’s, although this one makes sense given it takes place at the very beginning of the 90s. Were it not for the noticeable absence of cellphones and a few songs being played one would be able to reasonably assume it was taking place in the modern day.
- Accidental Murder:
- The reason for Deke's guilt. He reflexively shot and killed a wounded victim, and he and the rest of the department covered it up.
- Albert Sparma provokes Baxter into hitting him with a shovel, but in his anger he ends up knocking Sparma dead.
- Ambiguous Ending: Baxter accidentally kills Albert with the shovel after being taunted too many times. Deke helps him dispose of anything related to Albert with Albert's corpse buried eventually, while Baxter keeps trying to tell himself that Albert was the killer. Meanwhile, it's still left unknown whether or not Albert is the killer, basically leaving whether or not the actual serial killer who nearly killed Tina is still out there...
- The Artifact: The movie taking place in 1990 has little effect on the story and barring a few details it could easily be a contemporary murder mystery; the main reason the 90s setting is kept is likely because the original script was written in 1993 (it just took nearly thirty years for movie to be made).
- Asshole Victim: Played with in regards to Albert Sparma; it depends on whether you think he was the killer or not. If he was the killer, then he had it coming, but if he wasn't then at worst he's guilty of being a creepy weirdo and wasting police time; he's not the most sympathetic victim but it doesn't make him deserving of death.
- Bait-and-Switch: Used repeatedly throughout the movie which all leads to the Ambiguous Ending. The Cold Open implies that the young girl trying to get away from the odd stalker will be missing and/or dead and will play a major role. But midway through the film she shows up unharmed at the Sheriff’s office. Then her being left alone in the station for a few minutes seems like it’ll be huge, but ultimately only corrupts the identification process and she’s never seen or mentioned again. Then Sparma’s insistence on taking Baxter to the site out on the country is creepily reminiscent of Se7en and he even starts talking about Baxter’s family. But then he tells him he’s never killed anyone in his life right before Baxter murders him and no bodies are found.
- Beauty Inversion: Jared Leto is a very pretty man, but Sparma has greasy hair, a ratty beard and a pot belly. He also waddles when he walks.
- Contrived Coincidence: The film's finale offers this as one potential explanation. Either Sparma is guilty, or a man who enjoys confessing to crimes he didn't commit just happened to have been working for a company tied to a victim. And that man just happened to be tracking Deke's old case as well as Jimmy's current case, and happened to be listening to dispatch at the time of a body being found. And happened to fit the description given by the escaped victim as well as the profile made by both Deke and the FBI. But there wouldn't be enough evidence to convict him, regardless.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The big reveal for Deke's backstory is that he shot a victim on reflex, and her death was blamed on the killer who had killed the other two people she was with. The coroner has to lie and claim it was death by stab wounds, since the killer doesn't use guns.
- Damsel out of Distress: In the opening sequence, a young woman driving down an isolated road is menaced by an unseen man, strongly implied to be the serial killer. After a tense chase scene where she tries and fails to get help at a truck-stop diner, she's able to make it onto the main road and flag down a truck.
- Destroy the Evidence: In the final scene, Deke destroys everything he bagged and stole from Albert's apartment, so it just looks like he moved out suddenly.
- Downer Ending: Deacon has again committed a felony by covering up a murder which doesn’t give him any closure. The complicit members of the LASD and Coroner’s Office still seem to be racked with guilt. The Serial Killer may still be out there. And an innocent (albeit very creepy) man may have been murdered. Baxter is the only one who may be able to move on without too many issues, but only because Deacon deceived him into believing Sparma was definitely the killer.
- Driving Question: Why is the serial killer going after prostitutes?
- Drop Dead Gorgeous: All of the serial killer's victims are young women left posed and naked.
- Faux Affably Evil: Sparma is always obsequiously polite, but it's clearly just an act that he does because he enjoys it, and it makes him seem even creepier.
- Foreshadowing: Baxter was warned not to get obsessed with the Rathbun case and go down like Deke did many years ago when he was with the LASD. By the end of the movie, he starts to suffer the same fate as Deke.
- Generic Cop Badges: The patches/emblems of the KCSD and the LASD are different from the actual ones used in real life. The only difference is that they don't have the bear in the middle of the patch/emblem.
- Jurisdiction Friction:
- Baxter rushes through a Los Angeles PD cordon (where Deke was illegally searching Albert's apartment for dirt on the suspect), but the uniformed officer tells him that the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department doesn't have jurisdiction.
- Captain Ferris informs Baxter that the FBI's been brought in on the case after a potential suspect, Stan, was found dead after he killed himself. Baxter is warned not to get in the FBI's way, but has a couple days before the agent arrives.
- Let Us Never Speak of This Again: Deke warns Baxter to never mention Albert, look at his file, or in general make any reference to him ever again. One slip and investigators will yank on that thread and ruin his life.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
- Deke really screwed up in the backstory by accidentally shooting one of the killer's only survivors trying to apprehend him. Not only did he kill an innocent person but she was also likely his best chance of identifying and stopping the killer as a witness, meaning the killer gets to keep killing.
- In the climax the stress gets to Baxter and he physically lashes out at Albert, inadvertently killing him. As a result, he and Deke are never able to determine if he really was the killer. If he wasn't, Baxter killed an innocent man. If he was, they can never properly bring him to justice, potentially find out where the victims are buried and bring their loved ones closure.
- Rage-Breaking Point: Baxter snaps and brains Albert with a shovel when he taunts him one too many times about being unable to find any proof.
- Red Herring: Played with. Albert looks like the perfect suspect. He has long black hair and a messy beard. He has freaky bugged out eyes. He has a weird personality. He walks with a limp like many classic movie psychos. He lives alone. He drives the same car as the killer. He picks up prostitutes. And when interrogated he laughs and jokes about the murders, especially after being shown the pictures of the victims. However, it's left up to the audience's interpretation if he really is the killer, or a pathetic attention seeker who bit off more than he can chew by pushing Deke and Baxter's buttons. In the end, he says he's never killed anyone in his life. The lack of evidence in his apartment, and his copy of Helter Skelter, seem to imply that he's just an off-putting, unpleasant, true-crime-obsessed man who enjoys messing with police investigations.
- Signs of Disrepair: Deke is introduced investigating petty vandalism of a Black Angus sign, wherein the culprits broke all the bulbs in the letter 'G'.
- Title Drop: Deke tells Jimmy that it's "the little things" (small details in the crime scene) that get killers caught. That includes the both of them by the end.
- The Unreveal: By the end of the movie, it still isn't clear if Albert was the killer or not.