'The Little Things' review: Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Rami Malek unite for thriller that harks back to genre's glory days

The film also stars Academy Award winner Jared Leto in a sensational performance

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Denzel Washington and Jared Leto in a scene from "The Little Things." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
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The Little Things

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto

Four stars

“It’s the little things that rip you apart,” says Denzel Washington’s police officer in John Lee Hancock’s absorbing new serial killer thriller. “It’s the little things that get you caught.”

The director behind the more saccharine Saving Mr Banks and The Blind Side has gone darker than ever before.

The story goes, Hancock wrote The Little Things in 1993. Steven Spielberg was attached to the project, but opted out. Nearly three decades later, Hancock has returned to the script – a creepy crime drama with a juicy cast, spearheaded by three Oscar-winners: Washington, Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek and Dallas Buyers Club's Jared Leto.

Washington is Joe Deacon, a Bakersfield sheriff who winds up back in Los Angeles, where he worked for 15 years. Why he left is one of the mysteries that hangs over the film like a thick fog.

Hancock more than knows his serial killer movies. The opening scene with a young blonde girl, Tina (Sofia Vassilieva), in her car, alone at night, singing along to the B-52s – is an immediate reminder of Brooke Smith in her vehicle as she trills to Tom Petty's American Girl in The Silence of the Lambs, still the grand-daddy of all serial killer movies.

As the film unfolds, you'll probably be reminded of David Fincher's Se7en, although, as Hancock was swift to point out to entertainment news website Deadline, he wrote the script before the 1995 movie came out.

A series of grisly murders are taking place in LA and leading the investigation is Malek's Jim Baxter. When Deacon first shows up, he's not entirely welcome – the two men rub each other the wrong way. But Baxter knows Deacon is a fine cop with a sixth sense and an empathy for his victims.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Rami Malek in a scene from "The Little Things." (Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Gradually, the forensically detailed investigation points to Albert Sparma (Leto), a long-haired loner who works a menial job. At this point what has been a simmering drama begins to come to the boil.

With brown contact lenses giving his eyes an eerie look, and a physicality and gait that is just delicious, Leto is sensational – his character clearly revelling in the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the law. Is he the killer? Or is he just a sick outsider?

Hancock and his vastly experienced cinematographer John Schwartzman, who have shot several movies together including The Founder, craft a seedy atmosphere in The Little Things. The film's impressive aesthetic qualities bring another Fincher serial killer movie, Zodiac, to mind.

With some justification, critics may complain that little space is given to the female victims – they're corpses and nothing more. Really, the film is about its three male protagonists; it's about obsession and the demons you hide in your past. It's also a film about the morally grey vacuum around detective work.

Leading an excellent cast, Washington is ultra-solid here, far surpassing the ex-homicide cop he played in 1999's The Bone Collector. Malek, too, is a welcome presence, as we've been denied his appearance in James Bond film No Time To Die due to repeated pandemic-­related delays.

What results is an old-fashioned thriller, the sort Hollywood has almost forgotten how to make.

The Little Things is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, January 28

The Little Things

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto

Four stars