The Little Things
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto
Writer/Director: John Lee Hancock
In theaters and streaming on HBO Max
You may have noticed that Denzel Washington makes less than one movie a year these days. His latest, The Little Things, comes more than two years after his last Equalizer outing, which arrived one year after Roman J. Israel, Esq., which turned up a year after Fences.
As one of those rare figures who manages to blend mastery of the screen actor’s art with the dazzle of pure movie star magnetism, Washington can’t help but draw special attention to his work, which with the possible exception of his Equalizer series is never disposable; never without meaningful subtext.
So when we hear Washington is playing an amalgam of the oldest tropes in the cop movie genre — a burnt-out, play-by-his-own-rules veteran who returns from exile to help solve that one murder case that got away from him — we know there’s no way this is going to spin out like some 1980s B-movie. And we’re right: Washington’s soft-spoken, easy-smiling officer with a growing paunch and an explosive temper is a bundle of contradictions, a crime solver driven by demons known only to himself and a handful of long-ago co-conspirators. As he proved in his Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic pilot in Flight, Washington is the kind of actor whose demeanor allows us to think we’re reading his character’s mind. Then he pulls back the curtain to reveal that, while we may have been half-right, we were also somehow all wrong.
Here he’s Joe “Deke” Deacon, a police force desk jockey in a dusty central California burg who finds himself running a department errand down to Los Angeles. It’s a bittersweet journey, because until five years ago he was the LAPD’s star homicide detective. He left that job after a spectacular and mysterious flame-out, but that does not prevent the department’s new rising star, a snappy-suited, fast-talking detective named Jim Baxter (Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek) from enlisting his help in cracking a particularly vexing serial murder case.
Mostly for curiosity’s sake, Deke tags along for a crime scene investigation, but he instantly realizes this murder is almost certainly a continuation of the very killing spree that ultimately sent him packing.
Writer-director John Lee Hancock, mostly known for his perfectly capable if largely conventional work on films like Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side and The Founder, continues to explore the edgy, fringe-dwelling style he discovered with The Highwaymen, his splendid character study of the cops who brought down Bonnie and Clyde. As he did with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson in that film, Hancock starkly defines his lead characters’ rough edges — then fits them together like perfectly matched puzzle pieces.
Malek’s tightly wound detective comes from a universe far removed from his Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury; viewers who know him only from that career-defining role may need a few minutes to adapt to his intense manner and, ironically, his native Los Angelino manner of speaking. He is especially compelling in the film’s later scenes, nervous and perhaps a bit thrilled to be confined in a car with a suspected killer, played with droning menace by Jared Leto, himself an Oscar winner for his unforgettable performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
Inevitably, everyone else involved in The Little Things orbits around the great Washington, who by nature of his infrequent screen appearances is granting us the rare opportunity to watch a movie star age at year-to-year intervals. Now 66, he seems utterly comfortable leaving far behind the persona of a chiseled Adonis. His is a body that has been lived in, and he brings to his latter-day roles a sense of one who is, while perhaps a bit wearied, nevertheless the fully realized product of a lifetime of experiences good and bad.
Next up for Washington: Macbeth. Directed by Joel Coen. That sounds pretty perfect.
Featured image: Washington and Malek in The Little Things (Photo credit: Nicola Goode Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
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