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Washington’s performance a highlight of excellent ‘Little Things’

You always get your money’s worth from John Lee Hancock.

Though not exactly a marquee name, he’s the writer and/or director behind such satisfying titles as “The Blind Side,” “A Perfect World,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Rookie” and Netflix’s true-life manhunt saga “The Highwaymen” (2019).

“The Little Things” is Hancock’s latest, starring a knockout trio of past Oscar-winners: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto.

Even though less than half of nationwide critics approved, its Rotten Tomatoes audience-rating stands at 80 percent; I fall firmly in that latter group.

Critics cited problematic plot-holes, but after watching it twice in as many days I found only one large loose end — which in any case was probably intentional

This dandy thriller, you see, appears to be a standard police procedural about the hunt for a fictitious serial killer in 1990 Los Angeles; but in the end, Hancock has lots of other stuff on his mind — of which, more later.

Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, an out-of-town beat cop who begins helping Malek’s lead detective on a string of grisly killings — which are somehow tied to a long-ago case Deke himself once handled in the city.

Washington does some of his finest work, making Deke a man resigned to his failures — somehow both badly broken and bracingly resolute at the same time.

So what is Deke’s connection to the case? Why did he leave the city in apparent shame for a lower-level job? Are these new slayings the work of the same vicious butcher?

More important, has Deke managed to dig up the actual killer, in the form of a scary and apparently half-crazed tradesman? (Leto plays this creepy suspect with stomach-turning brilliance.)

Hancock’s willingness to leave these questions open right to the end kept me riveted; and then the film’s final act, in which Malek’s cop makes several bad decisions, refuses to go where we expect.

In addition to its gripping plot, “Little Things” is technically excellent. The editing is flawless; Thomas Newman’s unnerving score is notably understated; and the stunning photography glows with green and yellow hues, like David Fincher’s scary “Zodiac” (2007).

In fact, Hancock leavens his film with references to other thrillers — including “In the Heat of the Night” and many Hitchcock classics (“Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “North by Northwest”).

But as with many of those films, Hancock is less interested in “whodunit” than in getting us to think; here, he examines the crushing burden on lawmen laboring to give closure to grieving parents — and racing to find their perp before he can flay another victim. For this reason, the film’s conclusion is less an “a-ha!” moment than a challenge to process all that went before. Thus my desire to watch it again at once — a commitment rewarded with far more to chew on than I had noted the first time around.

No question about it: “The Little Things” is made with extraordinary attention to detail.

Hence the title.

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