The bug-eyed psycho, especially when he’s portrayed by a skilled actor, is always good for a laugh, or a shudder, or something in between. It’s all about underplaying the overstatement. You’ve got to cue the audience to see that he’s cuh-cuh-crazy, but you’ve got to do it with just enough finesse to leave them thinking, “Is it all an act?” Jared Leto, who admittedly has had a lot of practice, knows how to give a state-of-the-art performance as the kind of diabolical screw-loose sleaze you love to loathe. He anchors the best sequence in “The Little Things” (a police interrogation), though another way to put that is that the scene raises the bar to a place that the rest of the movie can’t match.
Leto plays Albert Sparma, a piece of L.A. trash who looks like he’s halfway between a homeless person and Jesus. In the key scene, he’s brought into the station for questioning by two cops who have become unlikely partners: Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a visiting deputy from upstate (though he once worked in L.A., where he was a master profiler of serial killers), and Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), a sharp-dressed LAPD detective who gets himself on the local news so often that he’s become a bit of a celebrity. They’ve teamed up to solve a string of brutal murders (it’s the usual drill: a series of young women stalked and snuffed), and they think they’ve got their man in Sparma, who certainly looks the part.
He’s creepy and weirdly shaped (skinny, but with a paunch), with glassy black eyes, greasy long hair, a hippie beard, a geek grin, a work shirt buttoned up to his Adam’s apple, and a jaunty, nattering tone of self-amused viciousness. Sparma is a working stiff with a shuffling walk who will take a city bus to a strip club. But in the interrogation, he comes on as the designer-prole version of a Lectery evil genius, three steps ahead of every question he’s asked. He’s given gruesome photos of the murder victims, which he looks over with just enough deadpan relish to tease the cops without incriminating himself. “Do you get the feeling he’s enjoying this?” asks Deke, watching the action through the two-way mirror. Uh, you were expecting him not to enjoy it?
Leto, drawing on his quick-minded perversity (and wearing a touch of prosthetics that disfigure his handsomeness into a jaded rottenness), communicates a great deal of sick pleasure. Sparma, a loner, adores being the center of attention, and so does Jared Leto. (That’s what gives his performance an inner conviction.) Naturally, he outwits the cops, but everything still points to Sparma as the killer: his gloomy hoarder’s apartment, the fact that he confessed to a murder 8 years ago, the quality he conveys of being a skeevy low-life mastermind.
Leto, in his way, burns a small hole in the screen. That said, you’ve seen this kind of performance before. And you’ve really seen the rest of the movie before — almost literally, since “The Little Things,” written and directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), is a serial-killer procedural that would like to be “Se7en,” with a great many touches lifted from “Manhunter,” but it plays more like a not-so-very-special episode of “C.S.I.”
That’s a major disappointment, since this is the first lavishly scaled, multi-star-driven thriller we’ve had the chance to see in quite a while. Set in 1990, “The Little Things” is in the grisly forensics genre, with episodes unfolding at blood-splattered murder sites viewed through ultraviolet light, as well as a pleasing narrative tangle or two. Yet this sort of clinical detective movie hinges on creating a feeling of revelation, a kind of horror-saturated awe. “The Little Things” is just a warmed-over set of serial-killer-thriller clichés, like crime-scene photos we’ve seen before. And some of it doesn’t track all that well.
Take the Denzel Washington character. At first, the film seems to throw us a curveball, introducing Deke as a modest, head-down sort of desk jockey, a Kern County deputy in uniform who gets dispatched to L.A. to retrieve a key piece of evidence: a pair of bloody boots. But when he gets to the forensics lab, and then the police station, it turns out that most of the officers there know him. Deke, is seems, was once a legend — the kind of cop who could snake his way into the mind of a killer. But he got so immersed in one case that he suffered a triple bypass, a divorce, and a suspension, all within six months.
He is, in other words, a gloss on William Petersen’s damaged FBI Agent Will Graham in “Manhunter.” But when Graham had his breakdown (after getting onto the trail, and into the head, of Hannibal Lecter), he wasn’t ostracized. Deke’s backstory, his fall from grace, doesn’t fully parse, and Washington’s performance is so unruffled on the surface that it never acquires the quality of obsession the script keeps hinting at. Deke, still trying to solve that old case, gets absorbed into the new one, and he moves into a fleabag hotel and tapes pictures of the victims on the wall, so that he can ponder them with his thousand-yard stare. But sorry, I never bought it. “Manhunter” was a singular movie about obsession — to me, the greatest of all modern thrillers. This one, coming 35 years later, feels like a copy of a copy.
Rami Malek’s Jimmy is supposed to be Deke’s opposite number, a family-man careerist who’s smooth and together, with killer shades and Anthony Scaramucci hair. Malek plays him with a manner that’s studiously brusque yet so cocked-eyebrow insinuating that at times you feel like he should be called Sgt. Entendre. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that on some level it’s a piece of branding: the hard-ass L.A. cop as anti-Freddie Mercury.
“The Little Things” doesn’t completely click into “Se7en” mode until the grandiose climactic sequence, in which Sparma invites Jimmy to take a night drive out to the desert with him. As soon as they get there, the earlier film, with its monster-in-a-box prankish ghoulery, begins to hover over the action. Yet it’s hard not to notice that in this case the suspense “poetics” of a cop-vs.-suspect showdown leave common sense behind. Sparma asks Jimmy to dig a hole in the desert with a shovel, and then another hole, and it was at this point that I felt myself checking out of the movie. As in: There’s no way a seasoned L.A. cop was ever going to dig that hole. Deke, at one point, tells Jimmy that it’s “the little things” a detective needs to pay attention to; they’re the things that get a killer caught. Too often, though, it’s the big things that this movie doesn’t get right.