Review: Trio of Oscar winners make 'The Little Things' a big deal

Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto bring big Oscar energy to throwback cop thriller

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A throwback cop story featuring a trio of Oscar winners in fighting form, "The Little Things" is a tricky thriller that dusts off some old detective movie clichés and puts a slug in others. 

It's a juicy ride that isn't so much a whodunnit as it is a story of closure, the steps it takes to achieve it and what it really means to wrap a case. It's a psychological journey, and it shows the toll of uncertainty in a field where 100% accuracy is the only means to a satisfactory end.   

Denzel Washington and Jared Leto in "The Little Things."

Academy Award winner Denzel Washington is Joe Deacon, known as "Deke" to his friends on the force. He's a deputy who's been put out to pasture in Bakersfield after making his bones as one of Los Angeles' top homicide detectives. The reasons for his exit from L.A. are slowly parsed out, like a trial of breadcrumbs leading to the secrets he carries inside his soul. 

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It's 1990 and a string of murders in Southern California are all being linked to the same killer. Deke is sent down to L.A. to run some lab tests when he meets Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Oscar winner No. 2 on the call sheet), Deke's successor, and the lead detective investigating the murders. Jim seeks out the help and advice of Deke, and Deke — a driven obsessive who's not quite mentally stimulated by his work up in Bakersfield — dives in head first.

Suspects? There's really only one, and that's Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto, the third piece of the film's Oscar tri-force. Deke and Jim team up to track Albert, who certainly looks the part of the killer, and is also a deranged fan of police procedure who may or may not be trolling the cops just to get some attention. 

These three are set in motion and writer-director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") lets them rip, and each approach the material like they've binged on a steady diet of '80s and '90s cop and killer thrillers. It's a wonder Morgan Freeman doesn't chime in from one office over and tell them to keep it down. 

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in "The Little Things."

Denzel's Deke is the former straight man who has flown a little too close to the sun, the kind of tried-and-true veteran cop who pins photos of suspects and victims to his wall, pours himself a glass of scotch and lets the ghosts in the photos point him in the right direction. He knows the angles, the alternate angles and the angles adjacent to those; when the cops are busy dusting for prints at the scene of the crime, he's looking for clues in the apartment across the street with a view into the victim's residence, because he's following a hunch.

Malek, who has the presence of an alien who's been beamed down to Earth and is trying to assimilate with human beings and act "normal" so as not to draw attention to himself, initially plays his lead detective like he's the chief suspect in the murders, an interesting choice, like he was only given the script a few pages at a time. Eventually he settles into a more natural rhythm, and he and Denzel make a formidable buddy cop team. 

Leto is the wild card, and he brings a touch of camp to his character, who walks with a waddle and has a pronounced gut the actor probably spent six weeks binging on Ben & Jerry's to attain. He has ghoulish, sunken in eyes — he probably insisted on not sleeping as part of his preparation for the role — and brings with him an oddball energy that keeps the movie on its toes. 

"The Little Things" is interested in getting the guy but it's just as interested in closing the case, and in the way it explores the grey area between those goalposts, it becomes a story about the demons that reside inside a detective's head and what it takes to silence those voices, or at least to get them to go to sleep at night.

Deke and Jim discuss the particulars of whether "our boy" is the right suspect so many times it becomes its own shorthand running joke. But what happens when the hunch outweighs the evidence, when a cop's instinct becomes the main source of proof? That's the minutiae — the little things — with which the film is concerned. The devil is in the details, and "The Little Things" respects the process, imperfect though it may be.


'The Little Things'


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

Running time: 127 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max