Review: Denzel Washington tracks a serial killer in ‘The Little Things’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Little Things'

Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto: Three Oscar champs collide.

That’s the appeal of the new crime thriller “The Little Things,” a Warner Bros. production released theatrically and on HBO Max simultaneously on Friday.

It follows jaded California detective Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington), who teams with his hungry deputy Baxter (Malek) to track a bizarre serial killer (Leto) in the San Fernando Valley, where a giant cross statue looks down from the hills in judgement.

The film works, to the extent that it does, thanks to the complex central performance of Washington (“Glory”), who isn’t a brash, crooked cop like in “Training Day” (2001) but rather a wounded soul with a checkered past willing to bend the rules if necessary.

This clashes with his younger, more idealistic deputy, played with ultra-seriousness by Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). Rather than a fellow aging lawman swapping wisdom in Hancock’s “The Highwaymen” (2019), Malek is inexperienced, naively playing by the book like Ethan Hawke in “Training Day,” but with Malek’s more mysterious eyes.

It’s the job of Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) to break down Malek into hardened cynicism, while toying with Denzel in a delicious game of cat and mouse. You could argue that Leto chews the scenery, but he’s fittingly creepy as far as movie serial killers go, delivering a roadside piece of callback dialogue that will make your hair stand on end.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock has been trying to get his script made since 1993, initially intended for Steven Spielberg, who deemed it too dark. Instead, Hancock put it in a desk drawer for 30 years to direct feel-good flicks such as “The Rookie” (2002), “The Blind Side” (2009) and “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), only to return to the darkness.

In many ways, it feels like a script that’s been collecting dust since the ’90s, recalling crime thrillers of its era such as “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). It’s a shame it wasn’t made back then, when it was fresh. We’ve since seen the same concept done better in masterpieces such as “Se7en” (1995), “Zodiac” (2007) and “Prisoners” (2013).

The opening scene of a female victim singing behind the wheel of a car is a direct ripoff of “Lambs,” where Buffalo Bill’s victim jams to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” The ending is also eerily similar to “Se7en,” unfolding in a remote location as the killer tempts the detective and pushes his buttons, trying to get him to lose his cool.

In between, many script elements feel generic, particularly the aging detective who has to overcome his demons. To the film’s credit, it tries something new, as ghosts of the victims haunt Denzel. Unfortunately, that’s all the female characters get to do, except for a few brief scenes by Howard University alum Michael Hyatt as the coroner.

It all builds to a less than conclusive finale that leaves us guessing with a twist on top of a twist. It might feel familiar, but it’s a page-turner nonetheless. As a viewer who’s admittedly a mark for this genre, eagerly tallying the clues and trying to solve the case, I can acknowledge the film’s predictable nature while still enjoying its genre exercise.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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