The Little Things was written in 1993, and stayed in development hell for almost three decades, before finally being released in 2021, in the midst of the COVID pandemic. As a result, it’s considerably more than a period piece, but doesn’t quite feel like it comes from the early 90s either. Instead, it plays as an early 90s consciousness deformed, muted and finally revived by the conditions of lockdown – by the suddenly amorphous sense of an “out there” that came from being shut up in our homes; so close in spirit, in some ways, to the looming sense of immanence and connectivity that suffuses Hancock’s script. For The Little Things is a meditation on the serial killer as a figure of almost mystical convergence at the start of the 90s, a site where media glimpses a new horizon of virtuality that can’t quite be articulated in real space and time. More concretely, it revolves around a police officer, Joe Deacon, or Deke, played by Denzel Washington, who teams up with a younger officer, James Baxter, or Jim, played by Rami Malek, to investigate a series of murders in Los Angeles. Eventually, the two men hone in on mechanic Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto, as their prime suspect, producing a cat-and-mouse game that grows increasingly lurid and dangerous.
From the outset, The Little Things brims with the sense of emergence that was so visceral in early 90s cinema. Set to a looming synth score, Los Angeles becomes an interface for a new networked future that reduces the dialogue to a sotto voce hush, in deference to an incipient presence that is not quite at the threshold of perception yet. The film brims with these perceptual cusps, whether it’s a row of blank windows that holds Deke’s gaze at the crime scene, or a one-way mirror in a holding room that leads to a suspect’s epiphany, or even the site of the main murder – a blacked-out building, occupied by huddles of scared residents that we only glimpse in flashes of torchlight. These are the inscrutable eyes of the city, looking back at the detectives with an arcane sentience that refuses to entirely disclose its intentions. As a period piece about emergence, the film exudes a curious temporality, open-ended and foreclosed at the same time, resulting in some quite eccentric and elliptical plot details, as well as a fair few nods in the direction of Vertigo. Put bluntly, it’s a period piece about the future, prompting Deke’s refrain: “The past becomes the future becomes the past becomes…”
It’s no coincidence, either, that Denzel is cast in the role of senior detective, since he was the emblem of a certain brand of networked 90s thriller, one in which African-American perception was often more attuned to the incipient virtual future. Nowhere was that clearer in The Bone Collector, where Denzel’s character played a tetraplegic who nevertheless used a single finger to map avatar Angelina Jolie’s movement through physical space on an enormous virtual ensemble. The Bone Collector was perhaps the last time this network could be fully visualised, as the vast underbelly of the American city, along with the contingencies of cab travel, so it feels like a constant point of reference in The Little Things, which is set before it narratively, but occurs after it spiritually, a bit like Better Call Saul’s relation to Breaking Bad. Here, the best Denzel can do is to try and plug gaps in the network as they arise, and instruct Jim in the ethics of cold cases: “they’re your lifelong responsibility…you own them.” Part of the reason Deke is obsessed with this particular case is that three contingencies combined to render the original crime scene unreadable – a reliable neighbourhood snoop happened to be out on the night it went down, the lights in the park where it occurred malfunctioned, and a drought meant that the perpetrator left no footprints.
If the detectives are continually grasping at the fringes of this network, then the serial killer, as both figure and character, seems to embody it. We learn that Sparma confessed to the original murders, and knew all the relevant details, but wasn’t in a ten mile radius of the crime scene, as if he had somehow managed to do the deed virtually while remaining distant physically. Likewise, Sparma’s house is a media convergence hub, stacked with a television, a film projector, a police radio, and a veritable archive of newspaper clippings concealed in a box beneath the floor. In an echo of The Matrix, Sparma, well aware that Deke and Jim are watching him across the road, calls them from the payphone next to their car, and also uses their police radio against them, with near-catastrophic results. In all these cases, Sparma evokes a network society that was still nascent enough that cinema seemed capable of visualising it in analog space and time, so long as the medium adopted a sufficiently widescreen multiplectic gaze. The Little Things thus plays as nostalgia for large-screen spectacle in the midst of the pandemic – or perhaps more accurately at the tail end of the pandemic, when people were gradually returning to theatres that felt utterly cavernous after being closed for so many months, especially with spatial distancing measures in place. The dialogue may be slightly ponderous and platitudinous here, but in a way that’s attuned to the big screen, not unlike Leto’s languorous, lilting bodily gestures, redolent of the baroque grandiloquence of the 90s serial killer, and the ways it was renewed more recently in Joker.
All of that is to say that sight takes on a remarkable magnitude throughout The Little Things. Leto and Malek are both actors with preternaturally piercing gazes that resonate across vast distances, and both of them could have conceivably played each others’ roles in this film, as Sparma himself seems to intuit: “You know, you and I are a lot alike – in another lifetime, we could have been friends.” There’s an element of stunt casting with both actors too, but it works, especially in the case of Leto, whose stareoffs with both Malek and Denzel imbue the film with the deep duration of waiting and watching (Deke compres it to fishing), surveillance so intense that it starts to evoke a horizon that might network us beyond analog time and space. And the serial killer’s scopic gaze becomes the bridge between analog and virtual space, a nexus that Hancock figures in the freeways where this particular criminal does most of his hunting and burying. As the case tightens, freeways prompt the most elaborate vistas, as if the film itself is trying to outdo the serial killer with ever more expansive sightlines. One masterful coordination of camera and windshield gives way to the next, culminating with the centrepiece sequence, in which Deke and Sparma circle around the same patch of anonymous freeway several times, each of them attempting to secure a more panoramic vantage point.
In the final act of The Little Things, the freeway morphs into an information highway – the connective tissue between the payphone where Sparma contacts Jim, and the amorphous, notional, hypothetical space that he takes him to; a blank field, way out in the boondocks, lit by a sole pair of headlights, where he may or may not have buried the original body in the case. Like the field of power lines at the end of Se7en, this represents the point at which the film can no longer process the virtual future in regular time and space, as Deke follows closely behind, the navigator of the 90s network, but belated in his grasp this time, as he acknowledges by returning to his refrain: “The past becomes the future becomes the past becomes…” While he does help Jim to resolve the situation at an immediate level, their shared experience in the field ushers in a new world, accompanied by a change in LA radio personnel on the drive home: “And that brings an end to the world as we know it. Thanks for listening all these years.” The case remains unsolved, the character of Sparma is collapsed back into the figure of the serial killer as harbinger of a new virtual world order and, while Jim retires, our last glimpse is of him staring beyond his wife, kids and family home to the elements of the case that defied sight, the digitised threshold brimming in and around that darkened field.