A note during the first scene in “The Little Things” — an effective cold opening, full of danger and suspense — indicates that it’s 1990. At first, I thought this meant that the action would quickly vault forward into the present day, but instead the movie, which takes place mainly in Los Angeles, settles into a fairly generic version of the semi-recent past, occasionally flashing back to a few years earlier.
There aren’t many historical details or period flourishes that would justify this choice. It seems mostly like a pretext for removing cellphones, internet searches, GPS tracking and other modern conveniences that might ruin the analog ambience needed for an old-fashioned serial-killer thriller. Which is fair enough. When it comes to spooky neo-noir resonance, it’s hard to beat a ringing pay phone on an empty nighttime street or an envelope full of Polaroids.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Denzel Washington as a weary professional with keen instincts and a battered conscience, “The Little Things” is an unapologetic throwback. It broods over the psychologically and spiritually damaging effects of police work as its two main detectives (Rami Malek alongside Washington) pursue an elusive, malignant murderer of women. You might think of “Se7en” or “Zodiac” or a lost season of “True Detective,” though this movie is less self-consciously stylized than any of those.
And that’s partly because “The Little Things” is both a latecomer and a forerunner. (Time is a flat circle, doncha know.) Hancock wrote the screenplay almost 30 years ago, and in the ’90s possible directors included Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Hancock wrote the scripts for two Eastwood films in that decade, “A Perfect World” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” More recently, he has directed “The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Highwaymen.”
At their best, those movies are competent rather than groundbreaking — admirable in their sturdy commitment to filmmaking craft even as their stories stubbornly cling to convention. This one rises to a slightly higher level, though it doesn’t entirely avoid the clichés of its genre: “You know, you and I have a lot in common,” a suspect says to one of the detectives. That the apparent bad guy is played by Jared Leto doesn’t necessarily help matters.
But Leto, as a self-confessed “crime buff” with a creepily calm demeanor, isn’t bad. Malek as Jim Baxter, a zealous and ambitious Los Angeles detective flirting with career and personal catastrophe, is pretty good too. Who are we kidding, though? This movie is a coat that has been hanging in the closet for decades waiting for Washington to slip it on.
Not that the man’s actual clothes fit. That’s part of the texture of the performance. Joe Deacon, usually addressed as Deke, starts the movie as a sheriff’s deputy in a dusty stretch of California’s Central Valley. The khaki uniform does him no favors, and Deke carries himself like a man buckling under a long-carried burden — round in the shoulders, thick in the middle, slow and heavy in his stride.
You get the sense that it wasn’t always that way. You get that sense partly because you have seen Denzel Washington in this kind of role before, but the great ones can play endless variations on the same theme. When Deke drives down to Los Angeles on some irrelevant police business, we learn that he was once an L.A.P.D. homicide hotshot. He receives a mixed welcome. The captain (Terry Kinney) can barely stand to look at him. Deke’s former partner (Chris Bauer) and the medical examiner (Michael Hyatt) greet him warmly, but their kindness is edged with pity and disappointment.
Deke partners up with Baxter to hunt down a killer preying on young women, who may have been active back when Deke was on the force. (The cop who seems to be Jim’s actual partner, played by Natalie Morales, doesn’t have much to do). The case takes some expected turns, and some that are less so, but as the clues and leads accumulate the film’s interest is less in who done it than in what it does to the detectives. There is something Eastwoodian not only in Hancock’s clean, unpretentious directing, but also in the ethical universe he sketches. The line between good and evil is clear, but that doesn’t banish moral ambiguity or save the righteous from guilt. Nor does it guarantee justice.
That’s a heavy idea, and “The Little Things” doesn’t quite earn its weight. Thanks to Hancock’s craft and the discipline of the actors, it’s more than watchable, but you are unlikely to be haunted, disturbed or even surprised. You haven’t exactly seen this before. It just feels that way.
The Little Things
Rated R. Tortured souls and tortured bodies. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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