For the past few years, American cinema has been deprived of one of its most dependable assets—Denzel Washington. Since he earned his ninth Oscar nomination, for the interesting but underseen 2017 drama Roman J. Israel, Esq., the biggest superstar of his generation has largely been missing from Hollywood. (His only other recent credit is the disappointing 2018 sequel The Equalizer 2). So when Washington shambles on-screen in The Little Things, a somber detective thriller debuting in theaters and on HBO Max tomorrow, I delighted in the soothing familiarity of his presence. I was relieved to see Washington once again play a haunted and weary cop trying to unravel a mystery, even if the movie itself isn’t a masterpiece.
Washington has taken on this kind of role many times in his versatile career. Just look to his many collaborations with middlebrow auteurs such as Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu) and Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time), or his appearances in underrated cable classics such as Inside Man and The Bone Collector. Okay, maybe I’m stretching the meaning of the word underrated with that last example, but The Bone Collector is a lot like The Little Things—both are serial-killer stories that could feel hackneyed in the wrong hands but get an extra layer of watchability simply because Washington is on board. The Little Things belongs to an underappreciated category of theatrical experiences I’ve been nostalgic for: the competent yarn you could go see alone on a weekday evening and emerge from feeling satisfied.
The director, John Lee Hancock, a Hollywood journeyman who has directed mid-budget hits including The Rookie, The Blind Side, and The Founder, originally wrote the film in 1993 for Steven Spielberg to direct; it was also considered by auteurs such as Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty before Hancock finally decided to make it himself. The resulting film is so workmanlike that it’s initially hard to imagine why it appealed to those Oscar-winning directors, but the movie’s final act takes some surprising turns, offering bleak commentary on the serial-killer genre.
Set in Los Angeles and the more desolate western environs of California, The Little Things follows two cops who become uneasy allies while investigating a trail of murders. Befitting its throwback feel, the film also takes place in 1990, when the investigators can’t take advantage of cellphones or the internet. Joe Deacon (played by Washington), an unassuming sheriff in Kern County, was once a star L.A. detective, but he was driven off the force because of his obsession with a series of unsolved homicides. Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) is his slick replacement, who crosses paths with Deacon and then realizes that the killing of a young woman is likely connected to his predecessor’s cold cases. Much of the movie focuses on their generational tension, as Washington’s weary cynicism and penchant for ignoring procedure butt up against Baxter’s eager-to-please, press-savvy ways.
The Little Things might have crackled a little more if these two stars had the vibrant chemistry of, say, Washington and Chris Pine in Unstoppable. But Malek delivers a strange and uncomfortable performance, his jaw constantly clenched and his stare vacant. When he emerged in movies such as Short Term 12 and The Master, Malek seemed like such an exciting talent, and he certainly found industry success with his Oscar-winning role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. But he’s never quite been able to shake the persona of his breakthrough role, in Mr. Robot, in which he was magnetic and frightening as the antisocial hacker Elliot. His work as Baxter is similarly unsettling, even though he’s supposed to exude swagger and charisma. Watching Malek is particularly tough given how natural of an actor Washington is alongside him; none of Deacon’s mannerisms seems remotely forced, but all of Baxter’s do.
The ever-reliable Washington plays Deacon with a haunted posture (slumped shoulders, a slightly shuffling gait) and mumbles his lines with transfixing sincerity. The driving theme of the film is that Deacon can’t escape the murders he failed to solve, and Washington drowns his character in that guilt, without sacrificing his inherent movie-star charm. The script isn’t just about how Deacon and Baxter are trying to crack a case—it’s also about how the pursuit of justice can be crippling and all-consuming, turning promising figures like Deacon into people living half a life, forever haunted by victims they couldn’t save. When Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a mysterious loner who becomes the duo’s chief suspect, enters the film about halfway through, The Little Things shifts into morally ambiguous territory.
Leto plays Albert with the creepiness dial turned up to 11; he’s a drifter with greasy hair, a chillingly empty gaze, and expansive knowledge of the crimes being investigated. He’s such an obvious suspect that the back half of The Little Things becomes about figuring out whether he’s merely an obsessive trying to take credit for the murders or the real deal, and whether it matters to Deacon and Baxter, who are so fixated on finding closure. That psychological complexity gives the film a slightly fresher spin, as opposed to most serial-killer dramas, which are focused on just fitting the final pieces of the puzzle together.
I wish Hancock gave the movie even more room to interrogate Deacon’s and Baxter’s obsessions; too much of the first act is spent on plodding murder-scene details, and the backstory of Deacon’s time on the case is unfurled in flashbacks that are so brief, they’re hard to keep track of. But while Hancock’s script might have thrived in the hands of an artist like Spielberg, it’s still solid enough to enthrall in this final form. Even the most mundane moments in The Little Things aren’t enough to stifle Washington’s star power. Almost nothing is.