A chance errand gives a man, Kern County Deputy Sheriff “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a chance for another look at a crime that left three women dead. Teaming up with his replacement on the LAPD homicide department, Sgt. Jimmy Baxter (ç), Deke focuses on a long-haired repairman, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) in a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
Washingon, Malek and Leto all have Oscars: Washington won for “Glory” (Best Supporting, 1989) and for “Training Day” (Best Actor, 2001). Leto, for “Dallas Buyers Club” (Best Supporting, 2013) and Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Best Actor, 2018). Within John Lee Hancock’s script, these are all unattractive men. They are different flavors of trouble in a bottle, and when mixed, they are toxic.
As director Hancock doesn’t give us an atmosphere that would properly seduce us into loving the frame and wish to accompany these men on their journey. Time spent with the troubled Deke and his mysterious obsession drags on. Even when the truth is revealed, there is no light relief felt.
The story begins with a young woman with her long blonde hair in a pony tail. She’s driving along in the desert with no homes, no people and only one other car in sight. She’s listening to the radio, singing happily until she notices a car tailgating her and then driving ahead and stopping. You might recognize Sofia Vassilieva; she was the eldest daughter in TV series “The Medium.” She runs to a deserted gas station and tries to find help. The other driver gets out and follows. We only see the shoes; in the trunk; there’s a rape kit. The girl, Tina Salvatore, desperately runs into the two-lane road, standing in front of a big-rig. It’s October 1990, a time without widespread internet access or cellphones.
From this desert desperation scenario, we’re transported to Bakersfield in Kern County. The manager of a restaurant, Black Angus, is complaining to Deke about the “g” which has been shot out by vandals. It’s the third time in two months and he’ll need to sell an additional 13 dinners to cover it. His captain sends him down to Los Angeles to get evidence because a suspect was wearing a really nice pair of boots. The man’s face was forgettable; his boots were not.
LASD Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney) sends Deke like he’s doing him a favor, saying it will “give you a chance to visit all the friends you left behind.” Deke leaves, just as his dog has returned after a two-week absence. Deke has no family or close friends.
Once in Los Angeles, Deke makes the mistake of blocking in hot-shot Jimmy Baxter’s car. His car is almost towed away. Jimmy explains, “You blocked me in.”
Deke inquires, “Why don’t you just ask me to move it?”
Jimmy retorts, “I don’t have time. If you want special treatment, go back to Kern County.”
As an old friend, Detective Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer) complains, they “took the should out of the department.”
Yet Deke’s reputation in the department lives on. He was a good detective and Jimmy isn’t above getting some help because the department is under intense scrutiny. As one officer notes, “We haven’t been under such scrutiny since the Night Stalker.”
Jimmy is the lead detective on this serial murders case. He lets Deke tag along and Deke provides some insight on the latest in a string of murders. Deke points out a clue that everyone else overlooked.
From there, Jimmy is on the hook. Deke tells him that he wants to follow the clues; there’s a case up north that’s very similar. It’s the little things that trip you up, Deke tells Jimmy.
Jimmy’s captain (Glenn Morshower) warns him: Five years ago, Deke pushed himself so hard, he got a suspension, a divorce and a triple bypass. All in half a year. Deke hasn’t worked homicide since then and now, he’s taking his vacation days, staying in a seedy hotel and following his instincts. At night, we see that he has dreams; he sees the three women who were killed by an uncaught assailant. One of them in particular haunts him.
Deke focuses on a repairman, one who never made it to Jimmy’s crime scene. The man, Albert Sparma, follows crime or perhaps he’s keeping tabs on the cops and how they cover his crimes. Deke takes a bite of the poison fruit and convinces Jimmy to cover for him. And Jimmy yields to temptation, although in an equally implausible way.
Washington’s Oscar-winning outing in “Training Day” has a better hold on history. The LAPD has a history of brutality, but it’s not only White office on Black victims like Rodney King. His Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris in “Training Day” isn’t so far from corrupt CRASH officer Rafael Pérez. In that film, we had Ethan Hawke as the man being trained, the voice of reason, the conscience in the midst of corruption.
Here, in “The Little Things,” there’s a trio of repellant characters. There’s a soulless Los Angeles. The soundtrack is sly commentary with love songs, twisting the words to mean something else.
“It’s the little things that are important; it’s the little things that get you caught,” Deke tells Jimmy. But also, “It’s the little things that rip you apart.”
Jimmy tells Deke, “You piss on my leg and call it rain, we’re through.” That’s what’s for sale here. The climatic showdown between Albert Sparma and Jimmy Baxter isn’t believable. Jimmy has fallen into the gully of gullibility. This isn’t LA rain. There are no angels in Los Angeles and there’s no heart nor no heat in “The Little Things.”
“The Little Things” was released 29 January 2021 by Warner Bros. and is available on HBO Max.