Three Oscar winners explore the depths of 'The Little Things' kicker: Movie review

Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

There’s always something satisfying about a pulpy thriller starring Denzel Washington. The Oscar-winning actor has an ability to elevate any run-of-the-mill genre piece, even one as slick and sophisticated as John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things,” a sharp, suspenseful, yet uneasy slice of neo-noir set in the fall of 1990.

Rami Malek (left), Jared Leto (center) and Denzel Washington, each Oscar winners, star in ‘The Little Things.’

The magic Washington brings to a performance such as this, well, it’s in the little things: a stern glance, an easy grin, a tossed-off tag added to the end of a line. It’s what makes him such a memorable, and meme-able, actor – GIFs of his expressions are wildly overused as Twitter reactions. These characters are as much him as anything else, and he’s amassed a whole subgenre of of films with these performances. The best thing a director can do is simply follow him as he navigates the character and script, which Hancock provides in this sturdy, twisty tale, far darker than his previous projects.

In “The Little Things,” Washington is Joe Deacon, or Deke, a rural deputy in Kern County, California, dispatched to Los Angeles to pick up a piece of evidence to pin a perp. When he arrives in LA, it’s clear this is his former home turf, the greetings both warm and wary. But a young detective, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), is hungry for the legendary Deke’s insight into a troubling serial murder case, and he convinces him to head to a crime scene.

The blood-spattered apartment contains the body of a young woman, and Deke has a hunch it’s connected to an unsolved case from his past that continues to haunt him. As Jimmy will come to find out, Deke’s devotion to his cases tends toward the self-destructively obsessive, a trait that drove him from the LA precinct, despite his outstanding clearance rate. His almost religious devotion rubs off on hotshot detective Jimmy, as Deke shows him his unconventional approach to working a case. “It’s the little things,” he repeats, urging him to pay attention to the details.

As these two obsessive cops, Malek and Washington are understated, only rarely touching the realms of the operatic. Malek, following Washington’s lead in his performance, shoots for subtlety, and plays to the camera, not the rafters, mumbling, almost whispering the police shorthand the men share.

But “The Little Things” boasts three Oscar-winning actors: Washington, Malek and Jared Leto, who costars as Albert Sparma, a suspect the detectives zero in on. Leto’s physical beauty has been obfuscated by a prosthetic nose, long greasy hair and black contact lenses, giving him an unblinking shark’s gaze, which he pairs with a strange, low voice and a propensity for a childlike wave hello. It’s an absolute howler of a performance, a high-camp characterization of Sparma as the ultimate weirdo crime perv. He’s a complete creep, but is he The Guy?

Hancock’s script, which he directs efficiently and stylishly, slowly unfolds, revealing Deke’s complex history and his inner demons, but frustratingly, withholds answers. That lack of closure can torment a mind down into the depths of the psyche, something Deke knows all too well, and he sees it in the eyes of his protege. Whether or not they’re good or bad cops, all Hancock seeks to impart is that above all, they’re human: fallible, tortured, seeking justice or at least a bit of salvation, which is usually found in, you guessed it, the little things.


3 stars

Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt.

Directed by John Lee Hancock.

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.

Available in theaters and on HBO Max