The psychological toll of investigative police work seeps into the bones of John Lee Hancock’s gritty neo-noir The Little Things, which captures Los Angeles County’s flat urban sprawl and snaking freeways to highly atmospheric effect. If the director’s generally taut original screenplay settles on an ending too cryptic to be fully satisfying, the performances of Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as cops from the old school and the new who end up having more in common than they anticipated supply enough glue to hold everything together. Add in Jared Leto as the taunting weirdo who becomes their prime suspect in a series of brutal murders, and you have a suspenseful crime thriller with a dark allure.
Going out simultaneously on big screens wherever theaters are open and on HBO Max for the first month, the Warner Bros. release is set in 1990, before cellphones and rapid DNA profiling changed the nature of detective work. In many ways it’s a brooding throwback to the neo-noirs of that decade, like Carl Franklin’s One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, even if it lacks the originality of those genre standouts. There’s also a hint of David Fincher’s Seven, though without that film’s lurid theater of blood. Hancock is decidedly more interested in probing the cops’ minds than the killer’s, and his focus is entirely male, with women relegated to the periphery, including the victims.
Law and disorder.
A prologue shows a female driver cruising along an empty freeway at night, bopping to the B-52s, when another car starts stalking and blocking her, the unseen driver pursuing her on foot at a closed gas station. Right from the outset, Thomas Newman’s ominous score full of needling electronic elements and John Schwartzman’s shadowy widescreen cinematography help create an unsettling mood, steeped in dread.
Washington plays Kern County sheriff’s deputy Joe Deacon, known as “Deke,” whose reluctance to drive down Interstate 5 to Los Angeles to retrieve evidence hints at the bad blood of his time in city law enforcement. Five years earlier, he left following a meltdown that involved suspension from duty, divorce and triple bypass heart surgery within six months. Since then, he has become a solitary man, living alone and dealing mostly with minor misdemeanors on the job.
Deke still has a friend or two in L.A. County, whose loyalty is intertwined with his darkest secrets. But neither he nor the new college-boy homicide sergeant Jimmy Baxter (Malek) warm to each other at first. Jimmy is nonetheless intrigued to know why the officer with the department’s best clearance rate worked 15 years without a promotion. When a murder victim turns up, he brings Deke along to the crime scene, where echoes of the unsolved case that caused his departure from L.A. County begin to trouble him. Despite warnings from his captain (Terry Kinney) not to get mixed up with Deke, Jimmy starts consulting the grizzled older cop, who sticks around, taking vacation time to continue digging.
With six bodies that appear to be victims of the same killer, and no evidence, weapons or witnesses, the FBI is angling to take over the investigation, putting pressure on Jimmy to deliver fast results. A tip from Deke leads to them interrogating Albert Sparma (Leto), a stringy-haired, malevolently soft-spoken electrical repairman and self-described crime buff who enjoys the upper hand of knowing they have nothing concrete on him. But as they continue tracking him in a murky cat-and-mouse game, Jimmy becomes more willing to compromise his professional standards, slowly succumbing to the same kind of obsessive thinking that got Deke into trouble.
Hancock doesn’t match the surgical efficiency of the best noir screenwriting, but he’s good with dialogue and character. Ultimately, he’s less concerned with finding an unambiguous solution to the crime than showing how this line of work and its seedy milieu can get under the skin of even the sharpest investigators.
What keeps the film gripping is its textured scrutiny of the principal characters. Washington has played his share of cops both ethical and corrupt, and it’s rewarding to see him bring that range of screen history to the role of a haunted man, disillusioned by experience and damaged by his mistakes, his state of mind mirrored in his physical gravitas.
With his trim suits and compact, wiry build, Malek looks like an entirely different breed of cop, though as the two men’s respect for each other’s shrewdness grows, so too does their wary camaraderie. The lines separating Jimmy, who still believes in what he’s doing, from Deke, who has lost faith in police work and just wants to clear his conscience, gradually dissolve. That transition leaves Jimmy shattered, and Malek’s most powerful moments are in the hollowed-out numbness of his final scenes.
Leto clearly has a taste for playing creeps, reveling in the shadings of a character who could be a psychotic or merely a clever misfit, leaving enough of a question mark dangling over his guilt to undermine the cops’ growing certainty.
His climactic close encounter with Jimmy, which unfolds at night on a vast expanse of scrubby desert land in the northern part of the county, is just one tense example of how Hancock and frequent DP collaborator Schwartzman create a cinematic environment that’s unmistakable in its sense of place but avoids most of the familiar L.A. landmarks. The filmmakers use their locations to create a soul-sucking crime canvas in which it’s all too easy for men of the law to lose themselves.
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Gran Via
Distributor: Warner Bros., HBO Max
Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower
Director-screenwriter: John Lee Hancock
Producers: Mark Johnson, John Lee Hancock
Executive producers: Mike Drake, Kevin McCormick
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Robert Frazen
Casting: Denise Chamian
Rated R, 128 minutes