Denzel Washington elevates 'The Little Things'

Courtesy PhotoDenzel Washington and Rami Malek star in 'The Little Things.'

Denzel Washington doesn’t get enough credit for how subtle he can be. He gets credit for being one of our finest actors, certainly, and he’s got the awards case to prove it, but when we think of his best work we very often think of thunderous, larger than life performances in things like “Malcolm X” and “Training Day,” or even his passionate shouting at his players as Coach Boone in “Remember The Titans.” I’ve written before how audiences often confuse “Best Acting” with “Most Acting,” and I think despite all of his success, Washington has very often fallen victim to that. We crave the raw power, and so we miss the sheer emotional capacity he has an actor to just sit back and be in a moment. 

Thankfully, Washington himself seems very aware of this particular gift, and how he can use it to elevate roles and even entire films by imbuing them with quiet gravitas and moral weight. That’s what happens in his latest film, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things.” On the surface it’s a largely conventional crime drama driven by prestige actors and brooding tonal choices, but what makes it imminently watchable is Washington’s persistent, patient resonance.

Washington is Joe Deacon, a former LAPD detective living out a quiet existence as a rural California sheriff’s deputy when he’s asked by his Captain to go back to his old stomping grounds to retrieve some evidence for a case. When he arrives back in Los Angeles, he’s greeted by a cocky young detective named Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) who takes notice of Deacon’s keen observational skills and curiosity, especially as it applies to a recent string of serial murders Baxter is eager to solve. For Deacon, this new killer is a reminder of darkness in his past, a misstep that he’s never been able to let go of. For Baxter, it’s an opportunity to prove himself, to take the weight of the biggest cast of his young career off his shoulders. For the killer himself (Jared Leto), it’s a chance to play a deadly game with a pair of detectives, both of whom might feel more threatened by their own moral center than they are by an actual murderer.

If you’ve ever watched a detective movie before, you likely sense a certain rhythm building here, one that films like “Seven” and TV series like “True Detective” have proven can still work time and time again provided the emotional investment is there and the storytellers at work have enough personality to infuse into the narrative. It helps tremendously that Hancock, despite not being a household name, is an extremely effective and practiced filmmaker with a wide array of influences he’s able to bring to bear on this story, based on his own script that he held onto for decades before shooting himself. There’s a sense of investment there, of real craft, particularly in the way he shoots his killer on the prowl, and it’s an investment you can feel through the screen.

The trouble, of course, is that even with that sense of investment, certain aspects of the film still feel quite stale. Maybe it’s because the script was completed in the 1990s, or because the film is set in the 1990s, or because it follows the same Haunted Old Cop/Cocky Young Buck rhythm that so many other films follow, with a few notable deviations. Despite Hancock’s clear devotion to the material, this still feels like a film that’s half an hour too long because it’s decided that certain scenes simply have to exist for the sake of maintaining the rhythm, which might be fine if the film devoted more energy to its resolution, but instead the endgame just…well, sort of happens, without any real sense of build. It’s a strangely structured film for one that relies so heavily on certain tropes, and the result is a bit of an uneven mess.

That unevenness extends to the cast, which is packed with great actors but short on great performances even as everyone turns in serviceable work. Malek’s stiffness as Baxter is at least somewhat intentional, but I wanted to see him just a little more off the leash, while I wanted Leto to rein in his deliberate strangeness just a little more and perhaps, for the first time in years, take the less obvious road with a performance. Like the script, I recognize the ingredients here, but I don’t like the final flavor all that much.

The good news, indeed the best news about “The Little Things” is that Denzel Washington is still here, still brilliant, and still able to elevate even the driest material by the sheer force of his presence. It’s remarkable how much he’s still able to bring to a role like this after so many years, but what’s more remarkable is just how little he has to do to make Deacon into a figure brimming with life and regret and heart. He’s not shouting, or weeping, or tearing at his hair. He’s not doing the Most Acting, but he is doing the Best Acting, and his talent alone is enough to make this a watchable, even compelling film.

“The Little Things” is, in many ways, exactly the kind of largely unremarkable fare we expect to get in the early months of a typical movie release year, but despite that the film still finds ways to become remarkable. Thanks to Washington’s steady presence, Hancock’s enthusiastic direction, and the simple pleasure of crime cinema reliability, it manages to be something worth watching, flaws and all.

‘The Little Things’ is streaming on HBO Max and in theaters January 29. 

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