The Little Things” (January, HBO Max) might be the first film to benefit from the two-month qualifying extension for the Oscars – unless it’s too much of a cliché now to laud Denzel Washington, Jared Leto and even Rami Malek (who owns a trophy for “Bohemian Rhapsody”). It had been a while since I’ve luxuriated in a great Denzel performance, and that’s one of the appealing throwback elements of writer-director John Lee Hancock’s film, along with the 1990 setting, which allows for lower-tech, earthier crime investigation by Joe Deacon (Washington) and Jim Baxter (Malek).
While some might argue that the third-act redirection doesn’t play fair with the audience, “Deke” and Baxter – initially rivals before they partner up – put the focus on character from the start. Then Leto, with his Keyser Soze limp, joins the all-star trio as Albert Sparma, the lead suspect in the biggest string of Los Angeles serial killings “since the Night Stalker.” Sparma is obviously the killer … and yet he’s obviously not the killer. Little things in the screenplay and performance allow for this tricky balancing act.
“The Little Things” reminds me of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in that it’s about how unsolved serial killings effect people close to the case. But a key character there is a racist cop; Hancock’s film is more in line with the “Breaking Bad” notion that villainy doesn’t have to come from evil, it can come from a desire to do good. Also, it’s eerie how people such as the parents of one missing girl are on the periphery – waiting in the lobby when Baxter has nothing to tell them. They are always in the back of Baxter’s mind, and ours.
The production designers bring us back to the simpler (in terms of technology) time of 1990, but Hancock (who also directed the period piece “The Founder”) remembers that this was an era of high crime. It’s both an appealing and unappealing time; I like Thomas Newman’s nonintrusive score on this count, too. Character contrasts come from the cops’ environments. Hotshot young detective Baxter lives in a nice home with a wife, two kids and a pool. Deke stays in a hotel room so crummy that the desk man asks “You want some company (a prostitute)?” as part of the check-in procedure.
Baxter’s and Deke’s cop work is pretty basic, but details put this screenplay a cut above. (When you call your movie “The Little Things,” you gotta do the little things right to avoid snarky critic’s jibes.) The near-victim from the opening sequence, Tina (“Medium’s” Sofia Vassilieva), picks Sparma out of a mugshot assortment, but she had seen him in the hallway, so her ID is irrevocably tainted.
We see Baxter becoming more frustrated by these near-misses, and perhaps negatively influenced by Deke’s obsession (we get flashbacks to a similar case from his files) to the same degree he is positively influenced by Deke’s skill. Interestingly, “The Little Things” isn’t about hopelessly corrupt cops (Baxter could’ve tried to make Tina’s botched ID stick) but rather about cops screwing up in understandable or fluky fashion.
Despite the shortage of corruption (although there is some corner cutting in the pursuit of Sparma), “The Little Things’ ” ending won’t leave a viewer comforted with the notion that law enforcement officers are mostly good and crimes are mostly solved. (Someone whose view of crime-solving comes from film and TV would be stunned to find out how many crimes are not solved.)
The way Hancock shifts gears in the final act to another focus – albeit one that is there all along in the layered performances – is immediately controversial. What I see as a neat twist could be seen as a cruel joke by someone who comes here to catch a serial killer and desires nothing beyond that. I wonder if “The Little Things” could’ve somehow served both audiences; that might’ve elevated it to masterpiece status. Even without that, Hancock delivers a welcome jolt to the crime-investigation genre.