In THE LITTLE THINGS, Denzel Washington sticks around for more afternoon-cable pulp

There are times when it’s easy to lose patience with Denzel Washington for his steadfast dedication to being a movie star. Here is one of the best actors of his generation, a popular two-time Oscar winner with fine taste in theater classics and a willingness to complicate his megawatt charisma, who nonetheless frequently makes movies designed to play on some Turner-owned cable station or another in weekend-afternoon perpetuity.

Yet Washington, who has always appeared in pulp but has done so more often after 50, has stuck around in crime thrillers, vigilante thrillers, and serial-killer-chasing thrillers for so long that his junky one-for-them studio pictures can, under the right lighting, look like comfort. The Little Things, his new Warner Bros. movie premiering in theaters and HBO Max simultaneously, has the right lighting. Specifically, it’s lit in Diet David Fincher greens and streetlamps at night, a more richly moody look than anything I’ve seen before from writer-director John Lee Hancock. Hancock is taking a break from his usual Americana; rather than observing the men who caught Bonnie and Clyde or the unctuous franchising of McDonald’s or the white-knuckle production of Mary Poppins, he’s simply on the trail of Denzel Washington, on the trail of a serial killer, throwing back only so far as 1990. Canny, setting a cops-versus-killer narrative at the dawn of that narrative’s big-studio heyday.

Or maybe they just don’t want the easy out of cell phones. Joe Deacon (Washington) is a deputy in a small California town who heads to Los Angeles, where he used to work, on an evidence errand. Once there, he crosses paths with a bunch of old colleagues, as well as a murder case that reminds him of one he once worked. He quickly goes into Jack Reacher mode: holding up at a seedy motel, buying a change of clothes at a thrift store, and generally skulking around without permission. At first, this irritates Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the hot-shot detective actually assigned to the case. Then, for reasons not exactly explained, it intrigues him, and Jim makes Deacon his unofficial partner.

The Little Things is not exactly a whodunit. It’s full of slangy cop dialogue, and spends a fair amount of time focusing on scraps of evidence and the need for a search warrant. In this way (and, to be fair, in not many other ways), it resembles a halfway point between two specific Fincher movies: the ’90s-heyday grimness of Seven and the more procedural ambiguities of Zodiac. As with Zodiac, it presents an obvious suspect in the broad light of day, long before the story reaches a climax. That man is Albert Sparma, who seems like a preening serial killer who belongs in jail, because he is played by Jared Leto.

The haunted, obsessive cop is a well-worn cliché, approaching threadbare as policemen seem like increasingly discomfiting go-to movie heroes. But Washington slips into it comfortably, never taking it as an opportunity to coast or showboat. He’s a ghostly presence on crime scenes, in interrogation rooms, and generally tooling around Los Angeles in a series of unglamorous cars. He’s unafraid of stillness, and somehow constitutionally incapable of looking silly whilst brooding in a hotel room alone, in the darkness. The movie strategically withholds the specifics of Deacon’s past, a screenwriter’s contrivance that Washington buttons right up. He syncs with Hancock’s latent Eastwoodian leanings better than Kevin Costner did in The Highwaymen, which has gotta burn Costner up inside.

Washington is so magnetic here that he sends his co-stars into out-of-whack polarizations. Malek speaks with a vaguely Malkovichian airiness, only his body language is clenched and tight; Leto is all loosey-goosey taunts and insinuations, parodying this kind of role and this kind of actor by very much appearing to be this kind of actor. Amazingly, he also conveys ambiguity: the uncertainty over how to pin down the creepy Sparma is mirrored by uncertainly over whether Leto is giving a savvy performance, a terrible one, or a terribly savvy one.

Whatever it is, it’s not in service of a great movie, or even great pulp. Someone does say, and I quote: “You know, you and I are a lot alike.” Can’t it at least be the cop saying it to the suspect, rather than vice versa? No matter. The Little Things does work as a potboiler, not least because it doesn’t boil over; it’s content to generate suspense over the sight of an old man descending a drain pipe. And The Little Things does, in the end, show more interest in its characters and how they do their job than the grimy specifics of blood-spattered serial killer lairs. Its star has hung around this genre long enough for the trappings to fall away, turning the movie back into a character study of sorts. In the actual ’90s, Denzel might have gotten into a shoot-out over this case. What happens here instead may be Diet Fincher, but Washington does his damndest to turn it into some kind of a meal.