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Dark nuances: ‘The Little Things’ a worthy companion to roster of pyschological crime noir classics

Denzel Washington and Jared Leto in a scene from “The Little Things.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The opening scene in the midnight-dark, period-piece serial killer thriller “The Little Things” feels like a lift from a certain segment in “The Silence of the Lambs,” as if to acknowledge we’re in for a derivative thrill ride – and though writer-director John Lee Hancock actually penned the original screenplay for this psychological crime noir about 30 years ago, in terms of visual style and mood, it reminded me of “Lambs,” with echoes of such works as “L.A. Confidential” and David Fincher’s “Seven” and “Zodiac.”

Pretty good albeit disturbing company to keep, and “The Little Things” (set in the early 1990s) is a worthy companion to that roster – a disturbingly effective work with masterful performances from a triad of Oscar winners in prime form. I’m still not sure all the pieces of the razor-edged jigsaw puzzle fit snugly into place when all was said and solved, but isn’t there something exhilarating about character-piece murder mysteries that practically demand debate about not only the main plot, but the actions of the leads? (Eighty years after the debut of “The Maltese Falcon,” one can still make the case Bogie could have gone another way at the end.)

From “The Mighty Quinn” (1988) to “Fallen” (1998) to “Training Day” (2001) to “Deja Vu” (2006) to the “Equalizer” movies, Denzel Washington has played a canyon-wide array of current or former law enforcement agents, and he can do just about anything. So it’s no surprise he fits so comfortably into the role and exudes such world-weary gravitas as Joe “Deke” Deacon, once a legendary homicide detective in Los Angeles County, but in recent years living a relatively quiet existence as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, about 160 miles north of LA and a world away in terms of intensity and pressure and frequency of violent crimes. Deke is a loner (he once was a family man, but no more) who wants nothing more than to keep to himself and stay away from LA, but he has to return to his old stomping grounds to pick up some evidence. He’ll be in and out so quickly he won’t even have time to connect with former colleagues, or even stay overnight.

The best-laid plans …

By this point, writer-director Hancock (“The Alamo,” “The Blind Side,” “The Highwaymen”) has set the tone for an unnerving thriller with an extended sequence involving a young woman (Sofia Vassilieva) who is driving alone on a desolate stretch of road when a motorist begins to stalk her. (We’ll say no more about how that plays out.) When Deke walks into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office that served as his home base for some 15 years, a few wily long-timers such as Chris Bauer’s Det. Sal Rizoli are happy to see him, but the upstanding Capt. Carl Farris (the great Terry Kinney) makes no effort to shield his contempt for Deke. It’s almost as if they have a long and complicated history.

Rami Malek in a scene from “The Little Things.” (Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Deke arrives just as hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is holding a press conference about the search for a serial killer who is terrorizing the city. Upon first glance, the wiry young Jimmy with his suit and his sunglasses and his by-the-book investigative techniques couldn’t be more of a mismatch for the grizzled, thick-bodied aging lion Deke, who relies on instincts and an obsession with “the little things,” but Jimmy recognizes an asset when he sees it, and he invites Deke to stick around (there’s a grisly new fresh crime scene to inspect) and within days, they’re de facto partners.

With the Thomas Newman score helping set the ominous mood and director of photography John Schwartzman shooting in sometimes-nightmarish tones, e.g., the sickly greens in a cheap apartment turned murder scene and in a medical examiner’s room where Deke literally talks to a corpse, saying, “I’m all the friend you’ve got,” we get brief flashbacks and cryptic references to the incident that prompted Deke to leave the department a half-decade ago. Meanwhile, Deke and Jimmy zero in on their prime suspect, one Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who has the long hair and beard of Jesus Christ but the look of the devil himself in his deep-black eyes. Instead of being freaked out to be under the microscope, the creepy Sparma actually seems thrilled to be the target of the investigation. “You must really like my car,” he says to Deke as Deke shines a flashlight on the vehicle in the dead of night. Deke’s reply: “I do. How’s the trunk space?” Deke and Jimmy tell themselves they’ve got their man and it’s only a matter of time before Sparma incriminates himself, but it’s often Sparma who has the upper hand.

“The Little Things” lives up to its name with a precise and layered screenplay that distributes showcase moments not only to the leads but to smaller but pivotal characters such as Michael Hyatt’s Coroner Flo Dunigan, who has known Deke for a very long time, and Isabel Arraiza’s Ana Baxter, who is alarmed by her husband Jimmy’s obsessive dedication to his job and justifiably worried it will destroy their family. (Both actresses turn in excellent work.)

Malek and Washington are electric together in this atmospheric, moody thriller that will keep you guessing and on the edge of the proverbial seat (or living room sofa). You won’t be able to shake this one off for a very long time.

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