The Little Things is Better Than a Seven Copycat

Despite some similarities, John Lee Hancock's The Little Things and David Fincher's Seven end up in very different places. Which though is really darker?

Contrasting The Little Things and Seven
Photo: Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema

This article contains spoilers for The Little Things and Seven.

Critics have not been kind to The Little Things, the new Warner Bros./HBO Max psychological thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as two Los Angeles cops obsessed with catching a vicious serial killer. Although the film is apparently doing very decent business–especially on the streaming end–it sits at a mediocre 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with many comparing it to the 1995 classic Seven. In that juxtaposition, The Little Things is coming up short.

On the surface, there are a number of similarities between writer-director John Lee Hancock’s new police melodrama and David Fincher’s masterpiece from 25 years ago (with the exception of The Little Things’ opening scene, which seems closer to Fincher’s later Zodiac). Yet despite parallels in the two films’ plot structure, character relationships, settings, and themes, there are key differences that set them apart upon a closer look. These distinctions may also provide The Little Things with a more level critical playing field.

Both films, at their simplest level, are about a pair of mismatched cops on the hunt for a depraved murderer terrorizing a vast city. One of the cops is an older veteran–Denzel Washington in The Little Things, Morgan Freeman in Seven–who has all but mentally and physically checked out of the job; the other copper–Rami Malek in The Little Things, Brad Pitt in Seven–is younger, more energetic, and more eager to prove his mettle, perhaps ascending in the ranks of the police force.

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By the close of both films, a suspect is confronted and manages to get the upper hand (at least psychologically) on the protagonists. As both films wind down, the cocky, ambitious, younger cop has been destroyed emotionally by the ordeal while the older, wiser vet deals with the aftermath of the experience in his own, perhaps more restrained way. (It’s interesting to note that both veterans are played by Black men in the films, perhaps indicating that they are much more aware than their white partners that injustice in the world often goes unpunished.)

Yet here, aside from certain visual cues and period details, is where The Little Things and Seven begin to diverge along separate paths. Keep in mind that Hancock wrote his first draft of the former movie in 1993, a full two years before Seven hit movie screens. While not influenced by a specific real-life killer, Hancock almost certainly dialed into the climate of fear in California following the locally sourced rampages of monsters like Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. (The Hillside Stranglers), and Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris (The Tool Box Killers).

Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, meanwhile, said in contemporary interviews that his story was not inspired by a real-life reign of terror but by a period of time he spent living in New York City while trying to make it in the film business. He told Cinefantastique magazine, “I didn’t like my time in New York, but it’s true that if I hadn’t lived there I probably wouldn’t have written Seven.”

Let’s take a look at the other ways in which Seven and The Little Things are not the mirror images that they may seem to be at first glance.

Is It Really the Same 1990s Setting?

Thanks to the dark visual palette of both films (and to be fair, The Little Things does recreate some of Seven’s visual motifs, like flashlight beams lasering through a blackened out room), it’s easy to think that the two movies are set in an almost identical time and place. But the truth is a little more nuanced. Both movies were shot in and around Los Angeles, but only The Little Things is specifically set in LA; the city in Seven is never named. It’s also raining or overcast almost constantly in Seven, which would throw off anyone who thinks that the movie is supposed to take place in sunny Southern California.

Both films stage many of their sequences in grittier sections of the city, but while you know it’s LA in The Little Things, Seven creates an overall, more surreal impression that the film’s nameless metropolis itself is falling apart at the seams, and that evil and darkness seem to be feeding at its very core.

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Also while Seven was written and filmed in the early-to-mid-1990s, the exact year in which it takes place is never specified. That only enhances the timeless, allegorical quality that we suspect Fincher was going for from the start. The Little Things is set in 1990, and makes it obvious that things like cell phones, advanced methods of DNA profiling and other technological tools are not around yet. Both approaches are valid, but Seven has a somewhat more nightmarish quality to it as a result.

Denzel Washington vs. Morgan Freeman

As we mentioned earlier, both The Little Things and Seven (not to mention scores of other films and TV shows that have come out in the past 30 years) are centered on a pair of cops, each driven by different forces, who pool their efforts to catch the killer. Both sets of cops bicker, question each other’s methods, and end up grudgingly respecting each other, even if they never quite become friends. But there the resemblance ends.

In Seven, Morgan Freeman’s William Somerset is the older, more experienced detective. When we first meet him, he’s weary, burned out and ready for his impending retirement; you get the impression that he’s seen way more than his fill. You also get the sense that he’s a very decent human being and police officer–Commissioner Jim Gordon probably wouldn’t mind recruiting him for the Gotham police department. His kind of noble civil servant is clearly a dying breed in his decaying town.

Meanwhile Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) in The Little Things is a far more compromised character. He left a post as a top detective in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for a low-key gig as a deputy sheriff about 120 miles north. And we learn that he exited several years earlier after suffering both a heart attack and a nervous breakdown while pursuing a similar killer.

The case also cost him his marriage and estranged him from his daughters. And, as we find out late in the movie, it also cost him his conscience after he accidentally shot a survivor who he thought was a suspect in some bushes near a murder scene.

Neither Somerset nor Deacon want anything to do initially with the case at the heart of their respective movies, but both are inexorably drawn in. For Deacon, it is perhaps a chance at redemption; Somerset’s motivation is less clear, except that he perhaps wants to do one last thing to make life a little better in the city before he leaves forever. Deacon is ultimately compromised again (we’ll get to that a little later) while Somerset ends the movie by enigmatically hinting that he’s going to stick around a while longer and do his part to clean up a world “worth fighting for.”

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Rami Malek vs. Brad Pitt

The characters played by Rami Malek and Brad Pitt are somewhat closer in temperament and motivation. Malek’s Jim Baxter is a young hotshot detective who’s eager to make his mark on the force, with ambition, energy, and intelligence to spare. Pitt’s David Mills is just transferred from what we gather is a far less inhospitable city, and at one point Somerset expresses surprise that Mills asked for the job. But both Mills and Baxter have a cocky self-confidence that makes the eventual destruction of each man the turning point of their respective movies.

That destruction of course comes at the hands of the movies’ villains/suspects and involves an insidious taunting that results in an unconscionable act of violence. In both movies, the detectives are led out to remote desert locations to allegedly reclaim the body/bodies of the killer’s last victim(s). Once there, the suspects get under the skin of the young detectives, resulting in both Baxter and Mills killing their antagonists–the former with a shovel, the latter with a gun. But there’s a major difference between the two.

While Mills’ killing of the suspect is arguably understandable when it’s revealed that the latter’s last victim was Mills’ wife–confirmed by the delivery of her head in a box–Mills still faces punishment for executing an unarmed suspect. Baxter, meanwhile, slaughters his suspect without definitively knowing that the man committed a single murder. In fact, his suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), denies killing anyone while Seven’s John Doe (Kevin Spacey) freely admits to everything.

Baxter is rescued by Deacon, who covers up his partner’s crime and puts them both in a morally and ethically compromised position; Somerset is in no position to do the same, although we don’t imagine he would. While Baxter doesn’t lose any members of his own family (he has a wife and two little daughters), he is still traumatized by his obsession and its outcome–he’s killed a possibly innocent man, he hasn’t found the last victim, and the killer could still be out there. We’re not sure if he’ll snap out of it, even when Deacon takes further action (faking evidence) to ease Baxter’s conscience. Mills, meanwhile, may never recover from the loss of his wife and unborn baby and his own associated guilt.

As for Somerset and Deacon…as we mentioned earlier, Somerset seems likely to stay on the force a little longer and keep doing his best, if only to honor his partner, while Deacon–who’s probably guilty of manslaughter in his earlier case and is now also an accessory to murder–retreats back to his grubby little mobile home up north.

The Right Man Or Not?

The Little Things and Seven present us with two uniquely different antagonists. In The Little Things, Leto’s creepy, snarky Sparma is an appliance repairman linked by circumstantial evidence to the most recently confirmed murder by LA’s new serial killer. But even though Sparma seems to relish being in the spotlight as the chief suspect–and deliberately dangles the possibility that he is the killer, only to withdraw it often within the same conversation–there is no indisputable evidence that attaches him to the murders.

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Sparma does have a shady background and a couple of minor convictions on his record. He also admits to being a devotee of true crime, and even falsely claimed responsibility for a murder some years back. Yet he denies being the killer that Baxter and Deacon are looking for–even though his taunting about the crimes is eventually enough to cause Baxter to snap and kill him.

We may never know Sparma’s real motivation, but we know that of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), the nameless villain in Seven. His staging of macabre, agonizing deaths, each representing the seven deadly sins, is nothing less than a judgment upon humanity itself, a tapestry of depravity woven together to paint a picture of a lost, unsalvageable society. Unlike Sparma, Doe takes full responsibility for his actions and even works his own death at the hands of Mills into the plan. And while Sparma is a genuinely unsettling person, he is meant to be “real,” with a background, a job, and a semblance of a life. John Doe, in keeping with Seven’s more surreal aspects, has no past, no history, no identification, not even fingerprints. He’s a cipher and we’re meant to even wonder whether he’s a human being.

How It All Ends

By the end of both Seven and The Little Things, both trios of main characters are irrevocably changed. The suspects are dead, two cops’ lives are damaged or outright destroyed, and the other two lick their wounds in radically different ways. But both stories have different things they want to say at the end.

Seven is less a procedural and more an allegory–or perhaps a meditation–on the nature and pervasiveness of evil. It is an atmospheric, dread-inducing, and even frightening movie, yet its ultimate theme seems to be that as long as one person keeps fighting, hope can remain alive. That is made clear by Somerset’s vow to stay “around” at the film’s conclusion, despite his desperate yearning to retire and despite the psychological destruction of his partner.

The Little Things, meanwhile, has a message about how obsession and certainty can ruin a person’s life and force them to do things they never imagined. More specifically, it’s about how the nature of police work itself can enact that terrible toll on even the finest or smartest among us. We can probably assume that Deacon and Baxter started their careers with the best of intentions, but by the end of The Little Things both are revealed to be badly poisoned by their actions. Deacon retreats back into hiding and continues the cover-up, while we’re not sure what will happen to Baxter.

Perhaps the reason why Seven is a masterpiece and The Little Things is a solid yet flawed thriller is because of how they both make us feel. In The Little Things, we don’t fully empathize with Baxter or Deacon, whose choices are consistently the wrong ones. The movie has to work harder to get the two cops into the desert for the final confrontation with Sparma, and the personal stakes for Baxter are not high enough for him to initiate the fatal action he takes–his own family, who we barely get to know, are not in immediate danger.   

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In Seven, we ultimately empathize more with Mills and Somerset, giving the film the extra resonance and sense of tragedy that elevate it into a classic. We are genuinely heartbroken by the fate of Mills and his family: we’ve spent some time with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has confessed to Somerset earlier in the film that she never even wanted to come to this dying city in the first place. We feel more anguish and horror over her gruesome death, yet against all instincts, we still don’t want Mills to shoot John Doe and seal his own doom. And even after that bleak climactic moment, there’s an ever so slight but palpable sense of relief that Somerset is going to stick around after all. 

In the final analysis, and weirdly enough for a movie so dark, Seven has the more optimistic ending, and therefore the more satisfying one.The Little Things is out now in limited theaters and on HBO Max through the end of February.