Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, there’s a possibility that this film could also get an Oscar nomination. Because of which, this film deserves a conversation, if only briefly. The nominations are so far for Jared Leto who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club (2013). That film had its controversies, particularly regarding Leto’s performance, but, at the time that 2013 film had far more support than this one. If Leto’s performance is recognized at the Academy Awards, it would be only for his contrast to his co-stars here. Leto’s role here is the most outstanding only because it’s the most bold and possibly over-the-top. Leto is perhaps more muted than his recent roles in blockbusters like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Suicide Squad (2016), but not by that much.
Yet, even though it’s more understated, I would still argue that it’s not Leto’s best work. It’s certainly not as transformational as he was in Dallas Buyers Club or even Chapter 27 (2008). Unfortunately, what hinders Leto is the lack of material for him in the script level. Leto does with it what he can, which is simply looking and behaving like a creep, but there’s not much for him to do beyond that. Leto plays a murder suspect named Albert Sparma who police think might be a serial killer. As a character though, there’s not much to hang onto him. Arguably, there’s less than what Kevin Spacey got in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). However, there is a distinction to be made between that film or even Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and this one, and that distinction is that in Fincher’s films, there’s a solution or definitive answer to the inherent question of whodunnit. This film, written and directed by John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side), doesn’t provide that definitive answer.
Denzel Washington (Training Day and Malcolm X) stars as Joe Deacon aka Deke, a deputy sheriff in Bakersfield, Kern County, which is about two hours north of Los Angeles. Deke used to be a sheriff in Los Angeles, so he knows a lot of people and has a lot of connections in L.A. When Deke goes to Los Angeles on another case, he learns about a serial killer that reminds him of a case he investigated years earlier. He decides to join the case and help the lead detective who is a bit new to the scene.
I mentioned Fincher’s Se7en because both that film and this one are about serial killers in the 1990’s, but also both have as its premise an older, Black police detective, played by Morgan Freeman, who’s virtually retired but who is assisting a younger and non-Black police detective, played by Brad Pitt, who’s up-and-coming. The plot of both also follows the same arc of the older, Black cop being disillusioned or somewhat cynical due to a long, tiring or troubled career and the younger, non-Black cop being overly eager and overly invested in solving the case that it leads to his own ruin. To compete with Fincher’s Se7en, Hancock’s script, as well as the performances need to be up to the task. Washington is for sure up to the task. Unfortunately, Hancock’s script and direction, as well as the performance of the actor who is the Brad Pitt equivalent here, aren’t up to the task.
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody and Mr. Robot) co-stars as Jim Baxter, the aforementioned lead detective in 1990 investigating a serial killer. If this film were Se7en, which I feel like it’s aspiring to be, Malek’s character would be the Brad Pitt equivalent here. He’s eager and ambitious. He wants to solve the case, not just for ego but also because he wants justice for the murdered women popping up and he has deep compassion for those murdered women’s families. Malek doesn’t convince in his affect or mannerisms that his character arc means much of anything. He’s mostly flat where Pitt was engaging, possibly manic or too macho and aggressive, but Malek isn’t anything. He’s simply flat or too flat to pique my interest.
Regardless of his acting performance or lack thereof, Hancock’s script is a police procedural not distinct or noteworthy. The cops here do all the requisite things that one would expect a cop to do in any cop show on TV whether it’s Law & Order or it’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. There’s also nothing about this case that would distinguish it from any case on any of those TV shows. It might seem like a gimmick at this point, but Fincher’s Se7en had a case that was distinctive and noteworthy. There’s nothing like that here, which ultimately contributed to how bored I felt.
All of that could have been dismissed, if Hancock’s film engaged us with its central characters. Leto’s character though is kept at bay, purposefully. Malek’s character was too flat. That only leaves Washington’s character, which certainly had potential here. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Washington’s Deke has some kind of backstory or secret, which the film hints. That secret isn’t revealed until the very end. That revelation, though, lands with a thud. It doesn’t have the kind of impact that it was intended. I can’t explain why, except that it possibly would’ve helped if that secret were known sooner in the film rather than the last act. Revealing the secret sooner could’ve sunk in more what Deke was experiencing or how he’s been dealing with it. Otherwise, the whole thing at the end feels rather shrugged off, as if none of it mattered.
Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.
Available in theaters and HBO Max.