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The Little Things (2021)::rating::3::rating::3

Most of The Little Things will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen enough of these films: Two disparate cops track a serial killer who teases them with cleverness. One cop is older, boozier, haunted. His younger counterpart is hungry, edgy, and idealistic. They will spar until each realizes the other has something vital to offer. From there, our heroes team up for the long journey into night, their flashlights probing for a monster in the deep darkness.

It may sound like an insult, but Things does a fair job coloring within those lines. The cop opposites are played by Oscar-winners (Denzel Washington and Rami Malek), as is the scraggly, stringy-haired suspect (Jared Leto). Writer-director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder) ensures that this is a great-looking film, loaded with moody atmosphere. The plot stays in high gear, and keeps us hooked most of the way. (We’ll talk more about that “most” later.)

Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a county sheriff who was once a brilliant L.A. detective. It seems that Deke let his obsession with a particular case cloud his ethics and ruin his personal and professional life. Cut to present day–which, in this film, is 1990–a disgraced and demoted Deke gets sent to deliver a few documents to his old precinct. Jim Baxter (Malek) has stepped into Deke’s old role as all-star detective. Baxter is currently investigating a serial killer with similarities to the case that broke Deke’s body and soul. Of course, this tempts Deke to renew his fixation and let all the old demons crawl back into his life.

You can probably guess where the movie goes from here: Deke and Baxter bicker their way into a brittle alliance. The precinct captain is tired of their shit, and threatens to pull everybody off the case. Meanwhile, the wily killer taunts the cops, making it clear that he’s always a few chess moves ahead.

Again, it’s weird: The most derivative parts of the movie work best. Much of that is due to the trio of leads. Few actors command the screen like Washington, and he’s still got that magic. Malek plays Baxter as a geek with bottled intensity. He’s cocky and tightly wound. These two actors have a volatile chemistry, and it greatly elevates the film’s watchability. Leto, as the prime suspect, puts out a vibe of cheerfully detached malevolence. He’s creepier than this script probably deserves.

When it deviates from this well-worn formula, Things really flies off the rails and into the ravine. Hancock’s script tries to cover the same murky topography as both versions of Insomnia. Those superior films examine the ethical gray area of a brilliant cop who breaks the law to catch criminals, and how that sin sends him deep into the spiritual weeds. This is heady stuff, and it’s way above Things‘ pay grade. As a result, a lot of the film’s momentum gets zapped, leading to a supremely unsatisfying conclusion.

Things also leaves a lot of plot unresolved: Why do the cops at Deke’s old precinct greet him with contempt, but also give him access to their high-profile murder case? Why do the filmmakers cast an intriguing actress (Natalie Morales), and give her almost nothing to do? Also, I don’t want to give away the film’s final act, but: Why does the film promise a concrete conclusion, only to end with ambiguity and confusion? It’s dispiriting to see a movie work so hard to setup such a blah final act.

All that said, The Little Things offers mildly diverting entertainment. It’s not bad, but many films have done a better job with similar subject matter. (If you haven’t seen Insomnia, rent the Norwegian version, then compare it Christopher Nolan’s remake. Both films are criminally underrated.) This is two-thirds of a decent movie, the rest of which strands a powerhouse cast. You might enjoy The Little Things, but I’ll bet real money you won’t remember it for long.

127 min. R.

 

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