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Star-Studded Cast Brings John Lee Hancock's Serial Killer Film To Life


Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto - for a film called "The Little Things," that's a big-name cast. Critic Bob Mondello says "The Little Things" is a police procedural that's among the films that this year are opening simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The smooth, smartly tailored LAPD detective played by Rami Malek sounds plenty authoritative when he gives a homicide press briefing.


RAMI MALEK: (As Jim Baxter) I can assure you all we are taking a 24/7, all-hands-on-deck approach to these cases.

MONDELLO: What his comparatively rumpled predecessor, played by Denzel Washington, hears in that statement is, we don't have a suspect yet. Joe Deacon, known as Deke, left the force in 1985 after working a serial murder case so hard he got himself a suspension, a divorce and a triple bypass. It's now five years later, and the new guy, Jimmy Baxter, is well aware of Deke's rep.


MALEK: (As Jim Baxter) You're not exactly a department favorite.

MONDELLO: But since his investigation hasn't been making progress, maybe a fresh set of eyes, a different approach? Deke definitely gives him different, whispering to corpses, for instance.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Joe Deacon) You knew him, didn't you? Then you had one little feeling, but you waved it away.

MONDELLO: Still, when it comes to sussing out suspects, there's no question Deke's got old-school skills.


WASHINGTON: (As Joe Deacon) The guy's a shark. If he stops, he dies. He likes to drive, probably has a decent car, maybe two - high mileage.

MONDELLO: Recognizing similarities to the unsolved case that got him suspended, Deke insinuates himself into this investigation, getting so involved that Baxter lets him come out from behind a one-way mirror while interrogating one suspect, who's long-haired, unreadable, kind of squirrelly - which is to say, played by Jared Leto.


JARED LETO: (As Albert Sparma) Tired of steaming up that glass? Is it the part where I start feeling like it's a trap?

MONDELLO: Writer/director John Lee Hancock, working from a script he penned almost 30 years ago, is traipsing through well-traveled neo-noir territory in "The Little Things." Serial killer stories are staples of both TV and cinema these days. And the fact that the pandemic has this picture opening in both forms simultaneously prompts thoughts about what works where.

The high-profile casting is clearly a big-screen thing - all three stars suitably stellar and differently intense. The cat-and-mouse plotting with its clues, stakeouts, surveillance conjures the episodic rhythms of television. It's easy to imagine this story being strung out over a full season, "True Detective"-style. So it's gratifying that Hancock preferred a tighter storyline, concentrating less on solving the case than on the psychology of the detectives and their single-minded focus on minutia.


WASHINGTON: (As Joe Deacon) It's the little things that rip you apart. It's the little things that get you caught.

MONDELLO: And in this case, that gets you caught up in a soul-crushing pursuit that leaves two detectives with very different mindsets seeming every bit as unmoored as their prime suspect.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.