MOVIE REVIEW – Denzel Washington and Rami Malek play different types of cops working the same serial killer case in John Lee Hancock’s Los Angeles neo-noir film “The Little Things”, with Jared Leto as the wily prime suspect. HBO Max’s unconventional serial killer thriller is both unique and dark.
Police detective work requires a very tough nerve, especially when investigating a serial killer. That’s what John Lee Hancock’s gritty neo-noir Devil in the Details, set in Los Angeles, is all about. Though the director’s usually taut original script also ends with too much of a mysterious conclusion to be entirely satisfying, Denzel Washington and Rami Malek’s performances as old-school and new-school cops who end up having more in common than they thought, tie the story together quite well. Add to that Jared Leto as the mocking eccentric who becomes the prime suspect in a brutal series of murders, and you have a truly dark, gripping crime thriller.
Los Angeles, 1990
The film was released in the US by Warner Bros. last year simultaneously in theatres that were closed due to COVID and on HBO Max in its first month, but it has only just arrived here thanks to the launch of HBO Max in Hungary. The Devil in the Details is set in 1990, before mobile phones and rapid DNA profiling changed the nature of detective work. In many ways, it is a kind of homage to the neo-noirs of the decade, such as Carl Franklin’s A Bad Move and The Devil in a Blue Dress, even if it lacks the originality of the genre’s standout works. There are also some references to David Fincher’s The Seventh, although the stylistic elements of that film are missing. Hancock is definitely more interested in exploring the mind of the cop than the killer, and focuses entirely on the men, with the women relegated to the periphery, including the victims.
A sinister start, a cop’s dark secrets
In the prologue, a young female driver is driving on an empty highway at night, eagerly listening to music, when another car starts stalking and blocking her, and the unseen driver chases her on foot at a closed gas station. Thomas Newman’s ominous score, full of needle-sharp electronic elements, and John Schwartzman’s shadowy, widescreen cinematography help create the unsettling atmosphere of dread from the start.
Washington plays Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Deacon, aka “Deke,” who is reluctant to drive the 5 freeway to Los Angeles to get evidence, hinting at his bad memories in urban law enforcement. He left five years earlier following a crash that resulted in a six-month suspension from duty, divorce and triple bypass heart surgery. Since then he has become a lonely man, living alone and dealing mostly with minor infractions in his work.
Deke still has a few friends in L.A. County whose loyalties are intertwined with his darkest secrets. But neither he nor new young detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) like each other at first. Jimmy is nonetheless curious to know why the officer with the best clearance rate in the department has worked 15 years without a promotion. Despite warnings from his captain (Terry Kinney) not to befriend Deke, Jimmy consults the ageing, older cop, who persists and uses his freedom to continue digging. When the victim of a murder turns up, he takes Deke with him to the scene, where he begins to be disturbed by the echoes of the unsolved case that caused him to leave L.A. County.
Six dead bodies and a nutcase electrician
With six bodies found, all apparently victims of the same killer, and no evidence, weapons or witnesses, the FBI tries to take over the investigation and presses Jimmy for a quick result. Following Deke’s tip, they interrogate Albert Sparma (played by a stunningly transformed, deliberately sleazy Jared Leto), a stringy-haired, menacingly soft-spoken and constantly quipping electrician and self-proclaimed crime enthusiast who enjoys the superiority of knowing they have nothing concrete on him. But as they continue to investigate in an obscure game of cat-and-mouse, Jimmy becomes increasingly willing to compromise his professional standards and slowly succumbs to the same kind of obsessive thinking that got Deke into trouble in the first place.
It’s the two cops story
That said, I am a little dissatisfied with the ending. Hancock doesn’t achieve the surgical efficiency of the best noir screenplays, but he handles the dialogue and characters well. Ultimately, his aim is not to find a clear solution to the crime but to show that this profession and the seedy milieu that goes with it can make even the most professional detectives lose their marbles.
Nevertheless, the film is fascinating because it explores the multiple layers of the protagonists’ characters. Washington has played both ethical and corrupt cops, and it’s gratifying to see him bring this diverse cinematic past to bear in the role of a haunted man disillusioned by experience and adversity and damaged by his mistakes. And Rami Malek is equally professional as the young cop who is similarly and more severely affected by events. Still, this time Jared Leto is also terrific as the icy, obviously insane suspect.