Denzel Washington is excellent as a deputy sheriff who becomes obsessed with finding a killer in “The Little Things.” (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Denzel Washington is excellent as a deputy sheriff who becomes obsessed with finding a killer in “The Little Things.” (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

‘The Little Things’ a well-made but flawed thriller

John Lee Hancock film feels like it needs an update

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John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” is the second Warner Bros. picture — after “Wonder Woman 1984” — to open simultaneously in theaters (wherever those may be) and on HBO Max.

Despite the controversy over Warner Bros.’ deal, it could be a good thing for this particular film, given the somewhat jarring effect of its third act.

Viewers that choose to observe COVID-19 safety precautions and watch “The Little Things” at home will benefit from the option to go back and press “play” once again to help smooth things out.

Screenwriters are taught to establish the rules of movies within their first 10 minutes, and no later than 20 minutes. Even if there are “no rules,” that is still a rule that must be established.

Tightly crafted movies like “The Usual Suspects” and “The Sixth Sense” unveil perfect twists thanks to their adherence to their rules. And when viewers play the films backwards in their heads, everything clicks together.

Everything also clicks together in reverse for “The Little Things,” but the twist isn’t flawlessly executed.

To be clear, this movie isn’t about a jaw-dropping plot reveal, but rather a deepening of its main character.

Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a deputy sheriff working in Bakersfield. He’s packed on a few pounds and seems pretty burnt-out as he investigates crimes like a vandalized sign on the roof of a steakhouse.

His boss orders him to drive into Los Angeles to pick up a piece of evidence. He balks, but orders are orders.

Once there, he receives a lukewarm reception from the Los Angeles Police Department. And with his evidence tangled up in red tape, he’s forced to stay longer than planned.

Slick, young detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), becomes interested in the older cop, especially after, invited to a murder scene, Deke discovers an essential clue.

There’s a serial killer on the loose, and Deke becomes increasingly obsessed with finding him. And Jimmy begins to follow down the same path.

Repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), with his stringy hair, pot belly, sallow face and sunken eyes, is the prime suspect. (Leto looks like he both put on weight and starved himself for the role.)

Filmmaker Hancock is a clean, classical filmmaker, not unlike Clint Eastwood, with whom he kicked off his career with his two superb screenplays, “A Perfect World” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

As a director, he has told stories of ambition, both inspiring (“The Rookie,” “The Blind Side”) and slightly edgy (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Founder”).

But “The Little Things,” this story about obsession rather than ambition, feels a tad outside his wheelhouse. Although sturdy, Hancock seems more comfortable sharing information to advance drama rather than withholding it to increase suspense.

Hancock wrote the screenplay near the beginning of his career, in the 1990s, and the film is set during that time, suggesting few changes have been made. One unfortunate drawback is that there are no decent roles for women.

Natalie Morales (“Battle of the Sexes,” TV’s “Dead to Me”) appears as another police detective who occasionally appears and helps propel the plot; Michael Hyatt plays a forensic pathologist who has a history with Deke; and Isabel Arraiza plays Jimmy’s waiting-at-home wife, and that’s about it.

Without an update, the script is perhaps a step back in the director’s artistic evolution.

“The Little Things” might have worked a bit better as a character study, without its “surprises.” With all the cards laid on the table at the start, the characters could come to terms with their demons.

That version might also have beefed up the women’s roles and toned down the slightly overcooked acting by Oscar-winners Malek and Leto.

At least Malek can be partly forgiven for mumbling his lines Brando-style, since he was saddled with most of the story’s exposition. He might have just been keeping himself amused.

Washington is amazing as usual. Deke carries his pain in every inch of his body, emotionally flogging himself by turning down an invitation to stay at an old friend’s house and instead checking into the sleaziest, nastiest hotel in town, where ghosts of dead girls come to stare at him.

Hancock makes terrific use of dark spaces; most of his other films were in brightness. Creepy windows and pools of flashlight and ultra-violet light definitely heighten the mood of mystery.

In short, the film is worth seeing, but it could have been better. Really, there’s no sense in making a big thing over “The Little Things.”

REVIEW

The Little Things

★★1/2

Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales

Written and directed by: John Lee Hancock

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

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