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Review: ‘The Little Things’ are what fuel this mystery (Includes first-hand account)

‘The Little Things’ uses its Oscar-winning cast to act out a murder mystery in which everyone’s motives become increasingly blurred.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in 'The Little Things'
Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in 'The Little Things' - Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in 'The Little Things' - Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

‘The Little Things’ uses its Oscar-winning cast to act out a murder mystery in which everyone’s motives become increasingly blurred.

When a crime is committed, there’s a ripple effect that touches numerous people. Beyond the perpetrator and the victim, there’s friends and family, investigative authorities, media, the public, medical personnel if required, court representatives if apprehended, and many more who may find their lives touched by a singular offence. Hence, when a crime goes unsolved, those more deeply and/or directly affected may find it difficult to move past the wrongdoing. This is particularly true in the case of an unresolved murder — with no one to blame, closure is impossible. In The Little Things, audiences watch as two police officers cannot stop until the mystery is solved.

Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington) left his post as a big city police detective to investigate broken neon signs in a small-town sheriff’s department. A chance return puts him in the middle of the hunt for a serial killer whose victims resemble Deke’s last case in the department. Hotshot lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is hanging by a thread with the FBI set to come in any day, so he asks Deke to accompany him to a crime scene for a fresh perspective. This is the first step in a joint investigation that is not healthy for either man as their chief suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), is doing everything he can to confuse and redirect the search.

The crime drama begins with an equal interest in the officers investigating the murders as the killings themselves. Each are wrapped in mystery that is gradually uncovered over the course of the narrative. Deke’s past has a heavy influence on his present, making him a determined detective — and potential liability. Jim is still too new to be hiding any skeletons in his closet, but the dead weigh heavily on his shoulders. In the meantime, Albert is an enigma in himself, pushing each man to his limits of sanity. Combined, they are a powder keg just waiting for something to light the fuse.

Even though the characters are participants in an active murder investigation, the film is more focused on the mindsets of these three men and the effects of an unsolved case on the detectives assigned to find the answers. Though decades apart, Deke and Jim have a lot in common with one man seeing his former self and the other seeing his potential future. Neither can resist the cat-and-mouse game Albert is goading them into, clouding their judgement and jeopardizing the upper-hand they need to maintain to catch the killer.

Casting three Academy Award winners in a character-driven film is a good way to ensure these complex personalities are portrayed well. All their performances are somewhat restrained, though Leto infuses Albert with an air of calculated mischief. There’s even something like a glimmer in his eyes that warns audiences he’s up to no good, but what that means isn’t always immediately clear. An older Washington portrays a man who is tired, but unable to give up the fight as Deke cannot stand idly by while another woman is killed. Malek’s Jim has the same drive as Deke, but he’s not yet been beaten down by the job, leaving him with the hope and confidence that they will emerge victorious. The trio play exceptionally well together, complementing each other’s performances and carrying the picture to the end.

The film is a slow burn that keeps everyone on edge and only slightly loosens its grip when the credits roll. In addition to having the washed-out aesthetic characteristic of the genre, much of the film unfolds in the dark — literally and figuratively. The result is a heavy picture that doesn’t prescribe to clear-cut storytelling.

Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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