The Little Things a police drama that isn't totally arresting

The Little Things (M, 127 minutes) 2 stars

Here's the set-up: a veteran African-American cop and a younger cop are searching for a serial killer.

No, it's not Se7ven (1995), though that film will inevitably come to mind while watching this one. The Little Things doesn't have a fiendishly riveting gimmick like the Seven Deadly Sins to drive the story forward and ultimately, isn't as memorable as its predecessor. But if you like serial-killer/cop movies and are willing to overlook the cliches and contrivances, there are some rewards here.

In The Little Things, writer-director John Lee Hancock is interested in character and moral ambiguity rather than gory thrills. The script dates back to the 1990s, when there was a spate of serial-killer movies including Copycat.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in The Little Things. Picture: Nicola Goode

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in The Little Things. Picture: Nicola Goode

Some time after the events of a prologue set in 1990, Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a deputy sheriff in Kern County, north of Los Angeles. It's a pretty quiet place, and we soon find out that Joe has a troubled past: he was a respected detective in LA but something happened that led to the breakdown of his health, marriage and career.

Deke is sent back to the big city to retrieve some evidence. His former colleagues aren't especially welcoming and he winds up following a young, media-savvy detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) who is investigating a serial killer. There appear to be some similarities between the modus operandi of this killer and one in a case Deke was unable to solve.

He takes some personal leave to help Jim (why the LA officials would permit this, given his reception and past, is not revealed). Despite the clash of generations and personalities, both want to nail the killer.

Their prime suspect is Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Albert is creepy, annoying and taunting but is he the killer or merely a weird, attention-seeking pest?

There's plenty of noirish atmosphere - much of the action takes place at night - but some aspects of the story don't feel credible even by movie standards.

Washington is appropriately and convincingly understated as the troubled Deke. Leto is wild-eyed and wacko and gnaws on the scenery. Malek is somewhere in between: his intense stares are occasionally as creepy as Leto's but as a married family man he's a far more grounded character.

There's a heavy suggestion, though, that if he's not careful Jim might end up alone and tormented like Deke. Just how much should a detective be invested in a case and how heavy is the toll when the professional and the personal collide? These are the sorts of ideas that Hancock is interested in exploring but they aren't delved into too deeply, despite the length and leisurely pace. It's not the ending that's the problem, which works on its own terms: it's what leads up to it.

The Little Things holds the attention but ultimately feels a little unsatisfying.

This story Police drama isn't totally arresting first appeared on The Canberra Times.