Something awful once happened to Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), now deputy sheriff in Kern County, a dusty outpost in California. Once a detective in LA, he "worked the case so hard he got a suspension, a divorce, and a triple bypass in 6 months". His brief return to LA, an overnight trip to collect evidence, embroils him in the investigation of a spate of murders. Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) is the lead detective, and takes Joe's help to comb for and crack through the suspect, one of whom is Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). Joe stays on in LA.
The film plays out in the noir template, with murder, dark, stark shadows, lonely streets, and sexual intrigue. It is the 1990s. The murderer is man turned on by the act of murder, not by sex, rape, or necrophilia. The show notes mention that the scenes in diners were made to look like Edward Hopper's languorous paintings of urban isolation. The streets are always empty at night, and at day the tar shines through like glitter, carpeted on either side by honeyed stalks waving in bunches. To watch this movie is to expose oneself to the visual and sonic distillation of loneliness. At one point Joe, driving along the highway, notices a young girl in a car, who smiles back with a shyness that was difficult to decipher. Denzel's gaze — was that paternal? Or something else going on? There is something so aspirational, yet pitiful about this life of a loner, whose one act of physical kindness was to a shaggy dog.
Rami Malek's front lip juts out with a sanitized sense of duty and family, which makes it interesting to see how this case unravels all of that. The friendship between Joe and Jimmy has no rancour, jealousy, anger, or resentment — afterall Jimmy replaced Joe when he was suspended. Instead there is a kindness that props it, with none of the toxic male attributes of men who wield a gun for a living.
While the two scenes where the murderer stalks his victim have a chilling implication — we don't see the abduction but only the leadup and aftermath — the investigation itself is a damp squib. For one, there are many things going on — the present investigation into present crimes, the present investigation into missing people, the present investigation into crimes in the past. Sometimes you don't know which thread the narrative is taking and developing. There is an indistinguishable quality between the murders — in their intensity, and how they fit into the story, even their names. After a point there is an arbitrary quality to the story's loose architecture, and as it hurtles towards its tense final moments, little about the case's leads and solutions feel hopeful, or even complete. The open ending, like a lot of the open wounds in the film, produce, instead of the hazy lignerings, a sense of incompleteness. Like the script — that was attached to Steven Spielberg, . Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito — was half-written.
As the film climaxes, its intent is made clear. It wants to be more psychological, delving less into the crime as much as its psychological aftermath, with the dislocation of sanity, and an inability to live with oneself. The desire for isolation creeps in. We don't know what will happen to Jimmy — a man with a wife and two sweet daughters. We are afraid he might go the Joe way, who himself had a wife and two daughters whom he hasn't called in a while. Jimmy is staring at his two kids in the pool in floaters like they are foreign creatures he is trying to understand. They look back, afraid. What is next, neither knows.