It’s not a stretch to compare “The Little Things” to a season of HBO’s erratic crime series “True Detective,” from its conflicted cops (played by A-list stars) to its flashbacks from an old crime that colors the investigators’ judgment of a new case.
It’s a comparison that works all too well, since writer-director John Lee Hancock’s procedural very often feels like an eight-episode series that’s been chopped into an ungainly two-hour feature, with lots of motivation, plotting and thematic coherence left on the cutting-room floor.
Denzel Washington stars as Deke, a deputy in Central California’s Kern County who is sent by his boss to Los Angeles to pick up some important evidence on a case. Once he arrives, we learn that Deke used to be a hot-shot detective with L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, before a heart attack, a mental health crisis and a divorce sent him out to the country. His evidence-collection assignment is soon called off, but not before he gets embroiled in a serial-killer case being handled by up-and-comer Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who turns to Deke for assistance.
One senses that Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Founder”) wants to bait and switch the audience with what at first seems like a straightforward policier but then pivots into a character study of Deke and Jim — respectively, an aging lawman who’s literally haunted by his mistakes and an ambitious young climber who may follow in Deke’s footsteps for better or for worse. To make that switch work, however, there need to be characters to study, and neither Deke nor Jim strays too far from a thousand cops we’ve seen in a thousand cop movies.
It certainly doesn’t help that Washington’s restrained, beaten-by-life demeanor has to play opposite Malek, who chooses to play this religious-minded husband and dad as an unblinking oddball. It’s an aggressively eccentric performance that doesn’t fit the film or the character, and the reason it doesn’t stand out more is because of Jared Leto’s twitchy, overblown performance as the prime suspect.
Acting choices aside, there are far too many concepts in “The Little Things” that are raised early on and then either forgotten about until the end or discarded entirely. A coroner (Michael Hyatt, “The Comey Rule”) has an oblique conversation with Deke about “what you did…what we did,” a dark secret that resurfaces so late in the game that it barely matters once it’s revealed.
Also, why make such a big deal about Jim and his boss (Terry Kinney) being church-goers, and include several shots of Deke staring at the Hollywood Cross monument, and then never make religion or spirituality a plot element? (And for that matter, why cast Natalie Morales as Jim’s partner and then style her to look exactly like Anna Chlumsky on “Hannibal”?)
One of the film’s most egregious drawbacks is its insistence on setting the action in 1990 for apparently no reason other than to keep the characters from having cellphones or the internet. Apart from the cars, and one fleeting glimpse of a “Bonfire of the Vanities” billboard, there’s nothing in the film that specifically uses the period in visually compelling ways, let alone narrative ones.
The film does offer Washington in quietly-intense mode, which is always worth a look, and Hancock’s location scouts Cary Heckmann and Jill Naumann have found some new and unique corners of one of the most-filmed cities on Earth, but overall, “The Little Things” — which is how Deke refers to the details that lead to killers being caught — isn’t much of anything.
“The Little Things” premieres in theaters and on HBO Max January 29.