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Digging Up the Past 

The Little Things and The Dig

click to enlarge Just because you've been vaccinated doesn't mean you can forget masks and social distance.

The Little Things

Just because you've been vaccinated doesn't mean you can forget masks and social distance.

A formidable intoxicant, nostalgia. Smoothing the rough edges of the past, it can also induce prejudice toward the future and obfuscate perceptions of the present. It reorders memory and, dependent upon mood and inclination, can alter the fundamental properties of things remembered. A pleasant, sticky trap, especially in times of stress and conflict, it must be both acknowledged and guarded against if one is to get at anything like the truth of one's own opinions. (Truth in opinion is another discussion). Nostalgia makes the old days better than they probably really were and, by comparison, diminishes all that follows.

The past week saw the release of two movies that, to varying degrees, trigger memories of an era between eras, when formalism and experimentation could co-exist within the sprawling, messy sphere of American movies. Comic book adaptations were rarity, not a rule. Young adult fiction stayed mainly on the page. Each year might see the release of half a dozen thrillers and maybe as many costume dramas, though not all of merit or worth watching. Movies like The Little Things and, to a lesser extent, The Dig used to roam the Earth in numbers, enough to classify by genre within genre, as genus to species. We often took them for granted and, time passing, often require a little nostalgic booster to be reminded of their presence in our lives.

THE LITTLE THINGS is not, and will not be remembered as, one of the great movies. Elevated by starpower, scarcity and competent craftsmanship, it feels a little like something more than it is. Decades past might have yielded a handful of twisty, dark detective thrillers from topline talent every year. More than a few of them could have even starred Denzel Washington. In the weirding present, though, this is a rare commodity. It is the product of Warner Media's bifurcated 2021 release plan, available in theaters and streaming on HBOMax simultaneously. As such, it has a degree of polish lacking in some of the direct to VOD offerings thus far.

Washington plays Deacon Jones, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff's homicide detective who, for reasons eventually made clear, now works patrol in dusty, mostly undescribed Kern County. Called upon to retrieve some evidence from the LA laboratory, he is drawn into a multiple-murder investigation with echoes of a case he has never been able to leave behind. Detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) takes a liking to Deke and, against the protestations of his captain, basically enlists him as a partner. They begin to circle a suspect, the nefariously-named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), and, as we learn more about the truth of Deke's departure from the department, the case at hand becomes darker, more unmanageable.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, a frequent purveyor of solid, if old-fashioned Hollywood stuff (The Blind Side, 2009; The Highwaymen, 2019), The Little Things feels pointedly like a reminder of another era (one assumes it is no accident the movie is set in 1990), partly because it is anchored by an unsurprisingly excellent Washington performance. He is one of the masters of this form, and imbues Deke with a lonely, hangdog resourcefulness that few others could really pull off; we can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Leto, having become the preeminent weirdo character actor of American cinema, does more with Sparma in each scene than most actors manage in an entire movie. It could easily turn busy or excessive, but somehow his sense of humor, the playfulness beneath the perversity, makes the character memorable and the performance winning. Malek, despite his many strengths, seems to be trying to stretch between the opposing poles of his co-stars and his work shows. R. 127M. HBOMAX.

THE DIG. Stuffy English period dramas used to be quite a thing. In fairness, Downton Abbey took up the mantle in the recent past; admittedly neither it nor its predecessors were every my, ahem, cup of tea. This movie, while on its face very much an heir to the legacy of Merchant Ivory, et al, neatly subverts the expectations of the school from whence it came and becomes something quite apart and much more human.

On the eve of World War II, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), recently widowed and left to raise a young son on a rambling Suffolk estate, wishes to carry out the work that brought her and her husband to the land in the first place. On it are a series of ancient burial mounds and she hopes to see their contents excavated. She contracts a humble, self-taught archeologist named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to undertake the project, which yields findings of far greater significance than either of them imagined. The British Royal Museum gets involved, conflict on the continent escalates and the personal dramas of the smalls group unearthing the past are brought to the fore.

The performances here are, no surprise, uniformly excellent. But what really elevates the material is the visual and narrative sensibility of director Simon Stone. Working from Moira Buffini's screenplay (based on the novel by John Preston), Stone and director of photography make use of up-to-the-minute camera technology to create an immediate, intimate, grand but not grandiose aesthetic for the story that renders it in terms of its greater themes — humanity's relationship to the past and the earth containing it; the cycle of life and death love lost and found — while inducing feelings of timelessness and modernity. PG13. 52M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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