‘The Little Things’ Review: Denzel Washington’s Search for a Serial Killer and Redemption

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Little Things only pretends to be a standard procedural about the hunt for a serial killer. In the end, it’s about something much bigger and well worth your time.

In just five years Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) went from the LAPD’s top homicide detective to a lowly Kern County sheriff’s deputy; from a man with a wife and daughters to a man living alone in the middle of the desert with a dog that refuses to stick around.

Something happened. Something terrible. Deke’s beyond haunted, and when he’s sent to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence, this lowly errand is not only another indignity reminding him of how far he’s fallen, it’s a return to the very precinct where everyone knows his dark and shameful secrets.

Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is everything Deke once was: a vibrant, sleek homicide detective comfortable in front of TV cameras as he works what’s known as a career case. There’s a serial killer on the loose, and it’s Baxter’s job to catch him.

At first, Deke and Baxter do what men like Deke and Baxter do: circle each other looking for an opening to cement their alpha status. The horrific murder of a young woman quickly brings them down to earth, and this is where writer/director John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things distinguishes itself from a countless number of serial killer movies and TV shows.

Reviewers are complaining about how unoriginal Hancock’s screenplay is, how we’ve already seen this movie a thousand times. What they’re missing is what The Little Things is really and truly about.

The Little Things isn’t about an eccentric and diabolical serial killer (in this case, a fantastically skuzzy Jared Leto) toying with the police. That we have seen countless times. But that’s just the plot, that’s merely the device Hancock uses to tell a much bigger and deeper story. What The Little Things is really about is Deke seeking some measure of Christian redemption by saving Baxter from the fate Deke suffered — which, as we eventually learn, is a fate there’s no coming back from.

Yes, all the serial killer tropes are right there — except for one… We’re not sure if Leto’s Albert Sparma is indeed our killer or just some weird guy obsessed with true crime, someone who toys with the police because he’s just one of those guys who confesses to crimes out of loneliness and the need for attention and to feel like he’s in the middle of history. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you how this all ends. What I will say is that the way everything comes together is a thing of real beauty.

On top of all that is the distinct pleasure of watching The Mighty Denzel Washington —  a movie star’s movie star — at work. Just as I love to watch John Wayne stand for something, and Cary Grant get chased, and Bette Davis hold on to her pride until the last possible moment, and Bogart express his cynical view of the world, and Joan Crawford hang in there, and Gary Cooper’s earnestness change everyone around him, I love to watch Denzel’s mind at work.

While there’s no question Denzel Washington has earned his place alongside the giants named above; these days he should be especially cherished. Movies are almost all terrible now, the movie star is all but extinct… We’re all drowning in spandex and CGI and the anti-art of woke, and this makes every Denzel close-up feel like a life preserver.

Sure, Washington’s played his share of cops and detectives, including haunted ones. He’s even hunted serial killers before. So what? Like everything else he does, Washington’s totally committed to this role without a hint of vanity. His hair’s gray, he’s 30 pounds overweight — a middle-aged actor playing a middle-aged man — and because of that, the movie’s best scenes have nothing to do with chases or action. It’s all about watching Washington as he tries to figure things out, as he gracefully and silently moves about collecting the pieces and tries to put them together.

The Little Things is set in 1990, so pre-cell phones and DNA technology (as we know it today). Other than the vehicles, though, it’s amazing how much 31-years-ago looks exactly like today. You keep having to remind yourself the story is taking place three decades in the past, which serves as another reminder of just how stuck and dull and conformist the 21st century is.

Although most of the story takes place in Los Angeles, Hancock and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, still manage to find interesting locations and to photograph the freeways and neighborhoods and desert roads in a way that serves the genre — which is more noir than procedural.

My only complaint is Malek, who’s miscast. This marvelous actor, who was as perfect as perfect gets in his portrayal of Freddie Mercury (and won a no-brainer Oscar for it), just never looks comfortable in the role of a sleek, everyman detective.

The Little Things arrived in theaters this weekend and can be streamed on HBO Max.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.

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