Denzel Washington drives down some dark, disturbing highways as a ’90s cop in pursuit of a serial killer in John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things (★★★☆☆). The screen legend shrewdly turns his charming persona into the on-the-job mask of anti-hero Joe “Deke” Deacon, a former L.A. County Sheriff’s detective exiled for past transgressions to a deputy job in Bakersfield.
In Deke’s private moments, when he isn’t brandishing that persuasive smile or his kind sense of authority, he’s usually home alone in his boxers, wallowing in pain and bitterness. Clinging to old mistakes and unsolved cases, he’s given too much of his life and psyche to chasing monsters. Killers’ deeds have become Deke’s obsession, and Washington bares the depths of the man’s fixation on all the grisly details that plague his mind. It isn’t a pretty performance, but it’s effective, and a brave use of star power to add something extra to the movie’s thoughtful — but standard — examination of the psychological toll of constantly trying to get into the head of the bad guy.
Strangely enough, writer-director Hancock (The Blind Side) doesn’t seem very eager to get into the head of this film’s purported bad guy, a loner appliance repairman named Albert Sparma. Refreshingly underplayed by Jared Leto, the film’s second in a trio of Oscar winners, squirrelly Sparma emerges as the lead suspect in the hunt for a freeway killer in L.A. County. Enjoying the attention, and perhaps plotting his own wild goose chase, he teases the cops on his trail — including Deke, acting on a hunch far out of his jurisdiction, and L.A. Sheriff hotshot Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek, your third Oscar-winner for the price of one.
The story doesn’t reveal much about Leto’s singularly strange Sparma, or how this greasy-haired slob who never changes his uniform also keeps his vintage Chevy Nova so pristinely clean, but the erstwhile Joker makes the guy frightening. His eerie calm and inappropriate sense of humor are genuinely off-putting.
Malek, on the other hand, can’t make Jim Baxter make sense. Fresh-faced but seasoned, unaware of Deke’s history but also the department’s trusted public face for a massive homicide investigation, the character amounts to a confused interpretation of the genre’s archetypal student to Deke’s master. This Jim Baxter is no Clarice Starling, and, in fact, is responsible for a sequence of incredibly dumb decisions at the climax that undermines much of the excellent work Washington does to elevate this lurid little thriller. The mere fact that Deke recognizes the best and worst of himself in his protégé Baxter is probably the young detective’s most interesting quality.
The film itself boasts many laudable qualities, from the subtle ’90s production design to expressive cinematography by John Schwartzman. Awash in a palette of sinister greens and yellows, deep shadows and sharp contrasts, The Little Things has the look of modern noir, and the atmosphere and tension of a true-crime mystery. The overall execution, particularly in aspects of plot and characterization, might not evoke the pulse-pounding thrill of the best of the genre, from Silence of the Lambs to Se7en. But the textured depiction of a homicide investigation, à la Zodiac, taps into the current, very charged conversation about the ethics of men and women in law enforcement.
Although, in this case, we would be talking just about the men, as The Little Things is a relatively macho affair. Only one female role with heft — county coroner and Deke’s old friend, Flo, well-played by actress Michael Hyatt — interrupts the movie’s parade of partners, wives, and serial killer victims. Hancock stakes some higher purpose in traveling down that brutal road by providing the great Denzel an opportunity to push his talent into compelling new corners, and offering nuggets of hard-won wisdom, like Deke’s favored motto, “It’s the little things that get you caught.”
The Little Things is opening in theaters, where open, and available for streaming January 29 on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.
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