Kern County Sheriff Deputy Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) was once a respected LAPD homicide detective until he failed to nab a serial killer who took the lives of several young women. While unsolved cases are the bane of law enforcement professionals, they rarely result in the demotion and banishment of a talented investigator. We know there’s more to Deke’s story when he returns to his old precinct on a routine errand and his former colleagues treat him like an outcast. Although the squad’s young detective, a rising star in the department, is warned to stay away from Deke, he avoids the advice. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is investigating another string of murders. Is it the same killer? Deke wants to believe it is and Baxter welcomes his help. When Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) emerges as the prime suspect, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins that will test both detectives’ skills and sanity.
The Little Things, written and directed by John Lee Hancock, is set in 1990, a time before the Internet and cell phones, often leaving the detectives out in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively. The film is an atmospheric crime drama, showcasing police procedure and what delving into the sick mind of a killer does to the legal professionals forced to live for a time in that distorted world.
After Deke failed to find and arrest the killer, he suffered a heart attack, his marriage broke up, and he took a job off the beaten track in Bakersfield. He’s gray on top, thick around the middle, and wears a nondescript khaki uniform that makes him look more like a security guard than a cop. By contrast, the younger Baxter is a sharp dresser, touted for his college degree, and has a lovely home, beautiful wife, and two adorable daughters. (Deke stops in to see his ex-wife, who has remarried, and admits he hasn’t talked to his daughters in a long time.) The two are polar opposites. Deke needs Baxter in order to stay and investigate the killings. It’s harder to grasp Baxter’s attraction to Deke, other than curiosity. Deke does spot something at a fresh crime scene that impresses Baxter. But Deke’s penchant to break the rules and the law while following Sparma should have set off alarms.
Several times in John Lee Hancock’s crime drama, Deke tells Baxter that “the little things” count. One such detail involves identifying workers who may have had access to the victims’ apartments. Sparma fits that description and he’s soon brought in for an interview. Rather than deny any involvement, Sparma enjoys baiting the two detectives, sharing details about the killings that hint at his involvement. Later when Deke breaks into Sparma’s apartment, he finds under floorboards a box filled with newspaper clippings about the women’s deaths. Do they link him to the murders, or do they merely back up Sparma’s claim that he’s interested in crime?
Rarely do we get to watch three talented actors, three Oscar winners, working together in a film that was released in theaters and on HBO Max with such fanfare. That promise is kept for at least three-fourths of the movie. As Sparma, Leto, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role, is sufficiently creepy and threatening. Malik has perhaps the toughest job, playing the detective in charge who allows the investigation to break down. Washington does what he always does: turns in a strong performance that makes his character both sympathetic and believable. Like the case, the film eventually goes off the rails when the plot veers into an unexpected direction.
There are so few great crime dramas being made that The Little Things goes a long way towards satisfying those looking for a watchable, if not a great, mystery. One thing about a controversial ending: there will be much to discuss for days to come.
Top photo: Denzel Washington, Credit: Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros.