Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) never wanted to return to Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that he had a good life there before his divorce and estrangement from his daughters. It didn’t matter that he’s now a Sheriff’s deputy in a small town when he used to be a big city detective with the department’s highest clearance rate. His fall from grace scarred him enough to know that setting foot in the City of Angels again would bring the memories he’s struggled to suppress during sleepless nights back into crystal clear focus. Deke has no choice, though, when his boss sends him to procure evidence for a case set to go to trial the next day. And it doesn’t take long to find himself right back where he started.

The Little Things writer/director John Lee Hancock (whose first draft of the script in 1993 supposedly proved too dark for Steven Spielberg to direct) has given his lead character a cruel twist of fate via curiosity in this way. All Deke had to do was grab a bloodstained pair of boots, but the lab tech said he couldn’t until morning. She also demands a signature from LA homicide, forcing him to go back to the precinct he left years ago to see familiar faces he’s avoided just as long. Ex-partner Sal (Chris Bauer) and a reporter friend are happy to see him. Captain Farris (Terry Kinney) is not. They all have glowing remarks for his replacement, though: the well-dressed and intensely pragmatic Jim Baxter (Rami Malek).

That Jim’s current case (the serial stabbing murders of multiple women) piques Deke’s interest is enough for the former to seek his legendary predecessor’s ear. That it piques Deke’s interest at all is enough for him to overstay his welcome and knock on some doors. Why? Because the details are strikingly similar to the infamous case that burnt him out. It’s the so-called “little things” that drag Deke right back to the obsessive headspace that all but ruined his life and Jim’s not one to reject “free” help turning red names to black. So a tenuous partnership commences, details about the past are slowly revealed, and the parallels between these two men’s lives become too much to ignore. If Jim’s not careful, he might just lose himself too.

The easy comparison point is thus David Fincher’s Seven because of the notion of a grizzled veteran and young hotshot teaming up to find a killer. While some of that film’s darkness bleeds in here, however, there’s not much to it. I’d say The Little Things runs closer to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners instead. While also dark, its focus is more aligned (the irony of course being that Hancock wrote this before either of those movies). Like that film, the case here is secondary to the lengths its protagonists will go to solve it. It’s about the paranoia that builds when a lead seems good and the demons that take control of our actions once the system proves ill-equipped to dole out the justice we “know” to be deserved.

We become less intrigued by the suspect’s potential evil (although Jared Leto is perfectly creepy as Albert Sparma—save what looks to be a badly faked gut made more pronounced by his otherwise gaunt appearance) than we are by the detectives tracking him. The questions surrounding Deke’s departure increase as heart attacks and mental breakdowns are hinted at right before a fresh example of how quickly his temper can turn arrives. The pristine life Jim leads is simultaneously shown to have the cracks that allow him to fall prey to vengeance where ambition had been the sole motivator. Seeing Deke’s flawed dedication flips a switch in Jim to the point that this one becomes personal courtesy of a new missing person transforming his hunt into a recovery mission.

Don’t therefore expect a series of grisly murders like Seven. Besides the flashbacks to Deke’s old case, we only see the aftermath of one violent outburst. That there are murders at all is the jumping off point to get Deke and Jim together. That this latest body leads them to Sparma’s doorstep is merely the impetus for their descent into madness where it concerns emotional instability in lieu of actual police work. We’re watching to see how far they will go with the man in their crosshairs regardless of his guilt. Will Jim see the way Deke is unraveling and heed his department’s warnings to pull the cord? Or will he get caught up in the adrenaline rush and misguided guilt to crash and burn right alongside him?

It’s a worthwhile dynamic bolstered by Washington’s ability to become a victim to his obsession while also being self-aware enough to know it’s getting both him and Jim in trouble. And while Malek seems miscast at the start—his confident cop coming off as a smug approximation dripping with artifice—the shift towards his own compulsive tendencies proves the opposite. When his Jim is “in it,” so the speak, the actor’s strengths become more apparent. He’s being taken over by impulse rather than instinct and his anger rises to make the performance more about emotion than precision. We need that volatility to match Washington’s because Leto is so calmly manipulative. Sparma eggs these men on with absolute delight and the whole is made better for it.

This is crucial too since Hancock’s inspired choice to make the object of Deke and Jim’s quest secondary does bring with it some narrative issues once we move closer to the end. By rendering the murders less important than the cops’ infatuation with their suspect in a way that also makes the case itself inconsequential, all those “little things” like a harrowing opening scene chasing a potential victim or the minutiae of the sole crime scene become moot too. They’re necessary as far as pushing Deke and Jim to their limits, but completely forgotten once we reach that cliff. Hancock’s conclusion is thus perfectly drawn where it comes to Deke’s cautionary tale and Jim’s Icarus-like fall, but woefully uninterested in the rest. A sense of incompleteness becomes unavoidable.

I blame Hancock making the case our primary focus for the entire first half. There are obvious reasons why (shrouding Deke’s past in as much conjecture and assumptions as possible is key to his arc’s payoff), but they don’t excuse the success in getting us to invest in something that is inevitably left by the wayside. So while I was willing to shift focus onto these men as they become victims of their own actions, I never let go of the murders. Hancock by no means needed to satisfy that desire, but his choice to instill it in me before pretending it wasn’t important carries enough frustration to taint what was. Maybe by entering with the knowledge that this is a character study rather than a mystery, it’ll work better for you.

The Little Things opens in limited release and streams on HBO Max starting January 29.

Grade: B-

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