When Denzel Washington is in a movie, he either plays a character that’s likeable, or intimidating. Sometimes, both. Whatever Washington manages to do on screen, he strikes me as an actor who takes his craft seriously, and puts in a lot of effort even down to the small details. He can make a scene much more intense just by the look in his eyes.

In his recent movie, The Little Things, currently playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, Washington manages to pull off a character that’s both likeable, sympathetic, and intense.

It’s difficult to talk about this movie without at least skidding along the line of spoilers. So, be forewarned.

The film opens with a young girl driving alone, in the dark, down a long stretch of highway.

She’s suddenly followed by another car that speeds up close behind, tailing her and then driving alongside her vehicle until it speeds ahead.

It slows down, forcing her to go around.

The stalker continues following when she frantically pulls into a gas station.

The girl stumbles out of her car only to find the gas station is closed. She still tries to find a way inside, but the stalker pulls in. The girl does all she can to escape.

After this incident, Joe Deacon, a former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Detective turned Deputy Sheriff in Bakerfield, Calif., is sent to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to collect evidence from a recent murder.

While at the Department, Deacon is introduced to Det. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) who takes him to the scene of a new murder.

During the initial crime scene investigation, Deacon notices similarities between the murder and one that occurred five years ago which he hasn’t able to solve. He’s been brooding over it ever since. He even went through a divorce and suffered a heart attack thanks to the heaviness of this unsolved case he cannot simply let go of.

During that same evening, a female jogger is abducted after being followed by a car. She’s reported missing the next morning.

The next night, another murder victim is found underneath a bridge. Unfortunately, it’s not the missing jogger.

Baxter learns this murder is also similar to the earlier murders. The victims were prostitutes that were stabbed to death.

Deacon narrows in on a suspect named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) who works in a repair shop.

He brings Sparma in for questioning, but Sparma isn’t too interested in cooperating. He’s let go after Deacon loses his temper with him.

The FBI get called onto the case, and Baxter and Deacon continuing investigating on their own.

Baxter’s captain, Carl Farris, tells him that eight years ago Sparma confessed to committing a murder he couldn’t have done because he was miles away from the crime scene. Evidently, Sparma has a strange obsession with crime and police activity. So, Farris rules him out as a suspect.

But Baxter and Deacon illegally break into Sparma’s apartment hoping to find evidence that’ll pin him to the murders — maybe even the murder Deacon couldn’t solve.

Suddenly, the events that follow completely blindside both of them. And the outcome isn’t what they suspected in the least.

The movie works well as a crime thriller. And Washington is a great casting choice in his role. He and Malek work well off each other.

Malek’s character is an investigator with a lot of determination to do his job with perfect accuracy. There’s no room for mistakes. Rami plays him as a serious investigator almost to a fault.

And Washington plays a deputy who had made a mistake in his past. His determination is to now correct it somehow.

Religious imagery Deacon spots at random locations spurs his conscience. We can see it in his eyes.

In one scene, he tells Baxter that when it comes to individuals getting caught for their crimes, “it’s the little things that are important, Jimmy.”

It’s their overblown determination that fogs their better judgement for just a short moment.

The Little Things kept me invested, without a slow moment, right to the end. And that’s where I lost my admiration for Deacon the movie built up before.

He was presented as a character who had something to make up for. Through his interactions, especially as he broods over this misdeed that happened five years before, which the audience doesn’t know about until the end.

There’s even religious imagery sprinkled throughout as if God Himself is pushing Deacon’s conscience to redeem himself through the investigation.

And when the end comes along, he fails. Deacon only helps keep Baxter at his level of regret after he makes the same mistake he did five years ago. Deacon certainly doesn’t redeem himself.

In the film, Baxter talks to Deacon about why he’s involved in the investigation.

“What is it you’re looking for in all this?” he asks.

“To finish the job,” Deacon replies.

Nothing was made up for. Past sins remain. New ones join in. No one is helped in any sort of way to at least alleviate a bad conscience. A tragedy remains a tragedy, and then some. Clearly, the job hasn’t been finished in the end.

The Little Things was suspenseful and entertaining, only to end on a pathetic and disappointing note.

I don’t see it ending up on a list of greatest Denzel Washington movies at any point in time.

MICHAEL SELLMAN is an employee of the Dorothy Bramlage Public Library and an occasional freelancer for The Junction City Union.

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