You wouldn’t suspect that homicide detectives would have much in common with angels. But Joe Deacon thinks they do.
Deacon, called “Deke” by most, believes detectives are like guardian angels for the dead, morally responsible to bring their killers to justice. “You own [those victims],” he says. “You’re their angel, trying like h— to turn the ledger from red to black.”
Deke would know.
He was such an angel once, in the City of Angels. He was one of Los Angeles’ most dogged detectives, gnawing cases like a rottweiler would worry bones. He had the best success rate of any homicide cop in the county.
But the job—that angelic responsibility, as Deke would call it—took its toll. A horrific triple homicide laid him low. He was suspended, got divorced and suffered a heart attack in the span of six months. Finally, this angel flew away.
Deke now serves as a deputy in quiet Kern County in the early 1990s, about two hours north of L.A., dealing with a steady diet of broken signs and petty thefts.
Alas, murder knows no boundaries, and a ticklish homicide sends Deke back to Los Angeles to pick up a bit of evidence—an overnight courier trip, that’s all. But he soon locks horns with Jim Baxter, a young hotshot detective who is working on a high-profile murder case that has officials flummoxed and the city terrified. When Jim hears about Deke’s reputation, he’s skeptical. But Jim also understands that to catch this killer, he’ll likely need all the help he can get.
“Why don’t you ride over with me [to the crime scene]?” Jim asks Deke with a snide smile. “Maybe you can even give me a few pointers.”
But when Deke sees that scene, he remembers that awful case from five years earlier, the case that nearly broke him. The killer was never caught back then. Could that murderer and this one be the very same guy?
Sure, it might be a stretch to compare detectives to angels. But comparing this killer to a devil? That feels all too accurate.
It’s not easy being a homicide detective, and it takes a special kind of person to do it well. Both Jim and Deke seem to have the mental acumen for the gig, but what sets them both apart is their tireless moral desire to bring evildoers to justice. That sort of relentless dedication, as we’ll see, comes with some pretty significant downsides. But for our purposes here, it’s the thought that counts.
We should also note that Jim is a conscientious family man, and he loves his wife and two daughters very much.
Jim’s described as a “holy roller,” and his faith would seem to inform much of his private life. When he comes home, he asks his wife if his kids have said their prayers. It seems as if his churchgoing ways are both a source of annoyance and of envy within the law enforcement agency. One detective says that he’s thought about starting to go to church, to see if it might help with his workplace advancement. And when Jim asks Deke how it’s possible that he could’ve been such a good cop for 15 years and never received a promotion, Deke says, “Maybe I didn’t go to the right church.”
Deke’s profession has made him a spiritual skeptic. “When I see a sun rise or a thunderstorm … yes, I think there’s a God,” he tells Jim. “When I see all of this, I think He’s long past giving a s—.” But we also glimpse hints that Deke used to be more pious. Whenever he drives along the freeway, he passes a gigantic cross on a hill that he eyes enigmatically.
Other religious imagery crops up at times: Deke stays at a slummy hotel named after St. Agnes (tellingly the patron saint of chastity, young girls and rape survivors), and we see a picture of an angel apparently comforting a man who looks to be Jesus (presumably in the Garden of Gethsemane). Crosses and other bits of Christian iconography appear elsewhere.
The murderer Deke and Jim are chasing kills young women. In Deke’s day, they were prostitutes. Now the murder is choosing his victims more randomly, but one thing hasn’t changed: When the bodies are found, they’re found naked, with the killer having apparently posed the corpses in some manner.
We see a few of those crime scenes, complete with naked corpses—sometimes viewed from the front, sometimes the side. And while it’s not meant to be titillating, nothing is hidden from the camera. Forensics labs and crime photos also feature the nude victims. One evening, Deke seems surrounded by the ghosts of the killer’s victims. Two are wrapped in towels, but one sits at the foot of his bed, seen from the side and obviously naked. She holds Deke’s foot and almost seems to caress it.
The killer obviously derives sexual pleasure from the acts, even though forensics can’t place any physical evidence of that pleasure at any of the crime scenes. When a suspect is brought in and is shown photos of the corpses, Deke lunges at the guy—causing the man to jump from his chair and reveal his arousal. (We don’t see it, but Deke and others discuss it as incriminating proof.)
A known sex offender is brought in for questioning after exposing himself. (He says he was simply urinating in an alley.) A convertible carrying three women passes Deke on the highway, and one seems to show an interest in the lawman. We learn that Deke is divorced. A video shows a woman in a bathing suit. A suspect frequents a strip club (with some lewd neon signs above the door).
Prostitutes ply their services on the streets, especially outside the St. Agnes hotel. (We see them dressed provocatively as they try to entice passers-by.) The clerk at St. Agnes initially tells Deke he has no connection to the girls outside. But when Deke rents a room, the clerk asks him if he’d like some company. We learn that a would-be eyewitness was out on a date, apparently spending the night with a man.
The victims bear the injuries that killed them, of course, and they can be quite grotesque. One woman’s neck, shoulders and chest are covered in her own blood, and we see a wicked wound to her neck. Another body is fished out of some water: Her face is scarred and bloated. In several flashbacks, the bodies of two other victims lie on a rock in identical poses, as if designed as some sort of offering. They were all bound and gagged, and many, if not all, the victims had been tortured in some manner, and some suffer post-mortem wounds. (One woman’s legs were shaved after she was dead, we hear, leaving a cut.) Perhaps most grotesquely, we also learn that the victims had been bitten: The jaw and bite patterns of the killer become a bit of evidence to track him down.
Someone gets shot in the stomach: We see the wound both before and after the victim succumbs. Someone dies after being hit in the head with a shovel. (Again, we see both the corpse and the fatal wounds.) We hear lots of graphic discussion about the killer’s methods and the state in which he left the bodies. A man brought in for questioning later kills himself with a shotgun. (We don’t see the act, but we hear about it after the fact.) Deke lunges at a suspect, forcing other detectives to pull them apart. Threats are made. A spent bullet that killed someone almost looks like a flower blossom.
Bloody stains cover carpets and walls. Deke uncovers what looks to be a box of potential trophies from victims. We hear that Deke once broke a suspect’s jaw during an interrogation.
Eight f-words and about five s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused once. We here plenty of crude references to the male anatomy. Someone exclaims, “Poop!”
The investigators discover that all of the killer’s victims were drugged. Another clue: The murderer drinks Busch beer, and we see the telltale beer cans at crime scenes and at a suspect’s house.
People gather at bars. Deke offers to buy Jim a drink. (When the teetotaler Jim refuses, Deke tries to entice him one more time: “I won’t tell,” he says.)
Again, we hear a great deal about the state of corpses and grotesque details about what has apparently happened to them. We hear about someone urinating, illegally, in public.
[Spoiler Warning] Characters lie, break the law and participate in two massive cover-ups.
Three Oscar winners—Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto—front this moody, noir-ish crime drama. You’d think the movie would be better.
The Little Things needed to pay better attention to some big things. The movie sometimes seems to forget itself, taking us down roads that it has no idea what to do with when it gets there. Take the movie’s spirituality, for instance: It seems to suggest that religion is an important key to understanding our two homicide detectives; but that would-be character-development detail proves to be nothing but a distracting rabbit trail. Likewise, the lead-up to the film’s climactic showdown feels wildly improbable. This whodunit pays scant attention to its own crime clues and even less about our characters.
All those narrative faults make The Little Things’ extreme content—and boy howdy, is it extreme—all the more jarring and problematic. The movie’s heroes tell us how important is to bring closure and dignity to the victims’ stories, and yet the movie itself treats their nude, mangled bodies with something close to contempt, asking audiences to be so horrified by the sight that they can’t turn away.
Deke compares homicide detectives to angels in The Little Things. But except for an occasional angel on the wall, you won’t find any angels here. Instead, it’s all like one of Jim and Deke’s crime scenes: loaded with blood and death and confusion, and all for no particular point.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.