Read: On Denzel Washington’s enduring stardom
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.
Read: ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ wastes a Denzel Washington performance
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.