It’s the little things that can make or break a movie.
Denzel Washington’s latest crime mystery, “The Little Things,” tries to present itself as a ‘90s throwback — to a decade when cop mysteries were not only popular, but were star makers; to a time when stories about corrupt cops who broke the law because the ends justified the means were not only accepted, but were cheered. Writer-director John Lee Hancock tries to play with these expectations — shrouding Washington’s Joe Deacon in a veil of self-contemptuous mystery, but he never commits to wanting to tell a story about how the little things can make or break a cop, or telling a straight-forward crime mystery. What’s left is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, but is still elevated by strong performances from its three leads.
Washington’s Deacon is a former LAPD detective now serving as a sheriff’s deputy in a small county in the middle of nowhere. When asked to return to the city in order to deliver evidence involved in an unrelated case, Deacon finds himself looking into a high profile serial killer case that bears resemblance he worked five years prior when he left. His former coworkers despise him, only alluding to their fallout in vague hints and accusations of burnout and abandonment that culminated in a heart attack, divorce and triple-bypass surgery.
Deacon is impressed with hotshot detective Jimmy Baxter, played by Rami Malek, fresh off his Academy Award win for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The two work the case together until they come across their primary suspect, Jared Leto’s Albert Sparma. Leto plays his creepy character with a mixture of underlying disturbing menace and scenery-chewing bravado. It’s hard to tell whether Leto is playing it straight, or embellishing some comical criminal that would be right at home in a “Dirty Harry” film. It works, though, as Sparma fits every profile of the killer, but fashions himself as a true crime fanatic — a character element that somewhat feels out of place in the 90s setting of the movie, as opposed to our modern crime-obsessed world.
The performances of the three leading men really help elevate “The Little Things” from the rote, almost flaccid crime story that the script delivers. It feels like a neo-noir thriller, but does little to utilize its setting behind a preponderant use of pay phones. Washington’s seedy, yet obsessive Deacon contrasts well with Malik’s sharp, almost manufactured Baxter. The dialogue is weak and ineffective — but sounds more powerful when delivered by three Oscar winners.
At some point — too late, in fact — the movie abandons the basic “who’s the killer” motif in favor of a more nuanced character study of how obsession can ruin lives. Deacon, and especially Baxter, become so fixated on Sparma as the killer that it takes over their lives. Deacon has been in this position before and warns his young partner about the dangers. But the movie still doesn’t try to do anything with the thematic elements, lending itself to a conclusion that comes off as either bold and thrilling — if you buy into the fact that Hancock’s script wants you to forget this started out as a mystery — or extremely unsatisfying if you’re still expecting a traditional bow and wrapping of an ending.
Frankly, Hancock sticks the landing when his script misses so many other things. If he had committed more to a character study of obsession and guilt against the backdrop of a neo-noir murder mystery, rather than trying to cram a character study into the second half of a basic mystery, the movie would have turned out much better. The direction is sharp, the performances are fantastic and the ending is a satisfying and gutsy move — but it feels like it was tacked on to a movie that started out as something else and didn’t earn its conclusion. In essence, Hancock missed the little things that make a movie great.
“The Little Things” is available on HBO Max, and is in theaters.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes movie reviews for The Lawton Constitution.