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Culture » Film Reviews

Caught in the Act

A trio of Oscar winners provide very different acting lessons in The Little Things.


  • Warner Bros Pictures

When you're promoting a serious movie about serious things like police investigating a serial killer, it's not surprising if you choose to lean into serious movie awards. Thus, when your movie's three lead actors are all Academy Award winners—as is the case with John Lee Hancock's The Little Things—you're absolutely going to promote it as starring "Academy Award winner Denzel Washington," "Academy Award winner Rami Malek" and "Academy Award winner Jared Leto." And this is true even though, as anyone who has watched more than a handful of movies in their life knows, it's crazy to suggest that there is some standard of acting excellence shared by all such honorees.

Leaving aside for a moment the peculiarities of the kind of roles that win acting Oscars, and why, The Little Things provides a fascinating opportunity to look at the very different ways that people can approach the craft of acting such that it grabs people's attention. Take a look at these three actors and their styles, and you've got a two-hour case study in what it looks like for an actor to immerse himself into a performance.

Set in 1990 California—for no clear reason other than other than thrillers now need to turn into period pieces to explain the absence of cell phones which otherwise would gum up the plot—it opens with Kern County sheriff's deputy "Deke" Deacon (Washington) sent on an assignment to retrieve evidence from Los Angeles. That happens to be where he was once a homicide detective, but bailed out several years earlier due to an unresolved case that still haunts him. A current string of murders being investigated by Det. Jim Baxter (Malek) could be connected to Deke's old case, eventually leading Jim and Deke to work together as their investigation leads toward a strange fellow named Albert Sparma (Leto).

There's more than a hint of Seven to Hancock's script, which digs into the psychic scars resulting from being a law-enforcement officer seeing things you can't unsee, and doing things you can't undo. It's one of those movies that pins its sense of importance on its grittiness, showing gruesome murder scenes and crawling around the dark corners of tortured minds. All of which makes it a shame that the final 20 minutes fall apart if you think about them for more than a second, the big revelations pinned on an act of generosity that might provide only a few days of peace.

But the draw is, after all, that trio of names above the title, and it's a truly odd mix of ingredients. Washington is a legend, and nothing he does for the rest of his career is going to change that, but he doesn't always feel like the right choice here. The character is meant to be a sort of savant as an investigator—another character helpfully intones at one point that "Deke's got his own style—while also showing us how he's tormented by the events that drove him out of L.A. Unfortunately, Washington always seems more comfortable when playing in a lower key, and the result here is a jumble of emotional bullet points that too rarely come together.

Malek, on the other hand, feels dead on in his portrayal of Baxter, who seems to be drifting away from his family—and his faith, though Hancock keeps trying to insert that idea in the clumsiest manner possible—the deeper he gets into his worst cases. There's a perpetual tension in his demeanor that feels just right, conveying a man whose sense of purpose could actually be his undoing.

Then there's Leto, and here's the tricky part. This is a place where the Seven comparison feels most relevant, as Leto seems to have watched a lot of Kevin Spacey's John Doe as a way into performing a sociopath taunting those who think they can outsmart him. Leto generally marinates in the quirks of his performances, which here leads to something that's showy, kind of nuts ... and also one of the few things that's actually fun to watch in this bleak landscape. Hancock serves up The Little Things as though it's far more profound than it turns out to be, but if all else fails, at least there's a chance to see what it looks like when capital-A Acting offers something that more conventionally "good" acting can't.