John Lee Hancock's L.A. noir stars Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto.
The Little Things
Credit: Nicola Goode/Warner Bros.

There is intensity, and then there are the Olympian levels of it suggested by the acting trinity that leads The Little Things: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto. (Was Joaquin Phoenix not available to dolly grip? Did Daniel Day-Lewis just hang back in catering?)

That may be at least partly why John Lee Hancock's L.A. noir (in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday) feels as muted as it does for so much of its two-hour-plus running time — a serial-killer thriller reframed as a slow-burn mood piece more consumed with character and smolder, perhaps, than in the payoff of its central mystery.    

Things is reportedly a passion project for Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), who completed the screenplay more than 30 years ago Early on, names like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood were attached to direct; he eventually took the reins himself, but kept the script's 1990 setting. That choice feels smart in that it gives the film a distinctive tone, while also allowing the action to unspool in an era beyond the reach of DNA testing, digital tracking, and other modern plot-shortening advances.

But much of the heavy lifting still belongs to Washington, whose Joe "Deke" Deacon, as the story opens, has seen better days; he's essentially been demoted to beat-cop status in a dusty Southern California desert town, though it's made clear that he once held a much higher profile with his old squad in Los Angeles. When he's sent up to the city on a clerical errand, even the LAPD's current hot-shot investigator, Jim Baxter (Malek) seems eager to get his take on a string of high-profile murders: young women ritually killed and arranged in strange formal tableaux.

It doesn't take much to establish that the two detectives — one as keen and taut as a prairie dog, the other older, bolder, less by-the-book — have markedly different styles. But Hancock doesn't make their odd-coupledom a particular sticking point; they're both equally obsessive, though it's Deacon who's driven by some haunting connection between this case and one from his past, revisited in teasing flashbacks.

Enter Leto as Albert Smarma, a local mechanic whose dead-eyed affect — part aspiring Manson, part greaseball messiah — seems to beg the question not of whether he did it but of how many bodies he can logistically fit under his floorboards. The movie then becomes about the dance between these three titanic actors, though their chemistry, oddly, never quite ignites as it should.

That may be a byproduct of the time-capsule script, whose beats were undoubtedly fresher three decades ago, even as its not-quite-contemporary setting lends the film a sort of palpable analog novelty. As the story works its way towards certain revelations, there's always more motivational onion to peel, but not necessarily more sense to be made of the hows and whys. In the absence of a clean ending, then, what's left is the familiar intrigue of smart men squinting dolefully at distant horizons and bloodied crime scenes, an ocean of bottled-up feeling, and a movie that takes a good half of its secrets to the grave. Grade: B

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