Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (‘The Highwaymen’), ‘The Little Things’ unfolds like a typical police procedural for the most part, complete with considerable banter between characters, a frowning police chief, and unsettling suspects. However, in the film’s last half hour, it embraces its darker potential and explores traditional neo-noir themes from an unconventional perspective. The film stars Denzel Washington as Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe “Deke” Deacon, a brilliant but disgraced detective who gets involved in a serial killing case when he visits his old workplace in Los Angeles.
His replacement, LAPD Detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek), is immediately fascinated by the legendary Deke’s deductive skills and asks the latter to help him solve the murders. The two officers soon zero in on a drifter named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who seems to know a bit too much about the case. Here is what we have observed when it comes to the ending of ‘The Little Things.’ SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Little Things Plot Synopsis
A few years earlier, star LA detective Joe Deacon’s life was turned upside down while pursuing a killer. He had a heart attack, his marriage ended, and he was suspended. Since then, he has been living on the fringes of civilization in Kern County, working as a Deputy Sheriff in Bakersfield. The Sheriff asks him to get certain evidence in a case from the forensic department of the LAPD.
During his visit, his old colleagues and boss receive him rather coldly, indicating that they consider his presence there as nothing but a nuisance. However, Jimmy, the new poster boy of the department, finds himself rapidly becoming interested in Deke’s intuitive and unorthodox methods. He is stuck in his pursuit of the latest killer hunting the streets of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. Jimmy takes Deke to the latest murder scene, and Deke figures out that the killer had set up an observatory across the alley so he can get a voyeuristic peek at his own crime.
Jimmy asks Deke to stick around longer, hoping to use his predecessor’s skills to catch the killer. As the investigation progresses, both detectives become convinced that Sparma is the man they are looking for. Leto portrays the character in such broad strokes that it almost becomes a caricature. Sparma claims to be a crime buff, but his unsettling mannerism gets the detectives’ instincts ringing.
Even when Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney) reveals to Jimmy that Sparma was previously investigated under similar circumstances in a case and was found to be several miles away at the time of the murder, Jimmy continues to believe that Sparma is their killer. It doesn’t take long for this belief to turn into an obsession for both Jimmy and Deke. Jimmy’s desperation also drives this as he knows that the captain will be forced to call the FBI if the result of their investigation isn’t produced soon.
The Little Things Ending: Who is the Killer?
The film maintains an amount of ambiguity around arguably the most important question it poses. ‘The Little Things’ begins with the killer pursuing a young woman. Although she manages to escape, the entire sequence basically establishes the trajectory of the plot. For the most part, the movie faithfully follows it. Hancock originally wrote the script in the 1990s, and although he made the movie nearly 25 years later, he consciously didn’t change the setting. The police procedural aspect of the film unravels like many crime-dramas that came out during that time period. Even the old-and-new team-up is reminiscent of films like ‘Seven.’
It is only in the last half hour that the audience starts to realize that ‘The Little Things’ was never meant to give a definitive answer about who is the killer. After Sparma’s death, Jimmy keeps asserting that Sparma is the killer, but that is mostly to convince himself and deny the reality of what he has done. In the closing scenes, the FBI takes over the case and launches a manhunt for Sparma. The narrative never makes an explicit statement marking Sparma as the killer but offers enough evidence to demonstrate the possibility that he might be. On the other hand, it also gives evidence that points to the contrary. Ultimately, it is left to the audience to come to their own conclusions.
Why Does Deke Help Jimmy Cover-Up Sparma’s Murder?
The film painstakingly creates a tangible connection between the two police officers so that when the time comes, it will be believable that the new cop was always bound for descent like the old one. The horrors of his failures have never really left Deke. He still literally sees the victims whose murders he hasn’t been able to solve. However, it has become easier for him to function naturally.
While chasing the last killer of his active career, Deke accidentally shot one of the survivors, killing her. Farris’ and Deke’s friend (Michael Hyatt) in the coroner’s office helped him cover up the murder. But the coroner still carries around the bullet that she retrieved from the girl’s chest as a reminder of her own criminal actions. Deke’s shadowy past makes him the perfect candidate to help Jimmy, and the former acknowledges it the moment he arrives at the scene and realizes what has happened.
With one girl still missing, the detectives hold on to the hope that they will catch the killer before he kills her. As the investigation doesn’t point to any other suspect, Deke and Jimmy start believing that Sparma is their guy. They interrogate him and later search his home, never finding any incriminating evidence. The two of them keep Sparma under constant surveillance, but that doesn’t produce any result either. While Deke is out on a coffee run, Sparma approaches Jimmy to taunt him and then discovers how eagerly the police officer will believe everything he says, as long as they are about the murders.
Sparma claims that he knows where the missing girl is and leads Jimmy to the middle of the Californian desert. Sparma tells Jimmy that he has buried the girl, and as Jimmy begins to dig in one spot, he points towards another. This continues until Jimmy realizes that his suspect has led him on a fool’s errand. He finally snaps and kills Sparma with one swing of the shovel.
History tends to repeat itself. That is what Deke reflects on when he arrives. He instructs the younger man to dig a big hole and then goes back to Sparma’s apartment and cleans it out. He leaves his own stuff behind and goes back to the desert. They bury Sparma together, and Deke warns Jimmy never to bring up the man again to anyone. He reaches home and starts burning Sparma’s belongings.
What’s in the Envelope?
In the closing scenes, we see Jimmy still shell-shocked. He has followed Deke’s advice and taken a prolonged leave from work. The only person who knows the truth is miles away. So, Jimmy has no choice but to deal with the enormity of his failure all alone. He receives an envelope from Deke. Inside it, there is a red barrette, the same as the one the last girl was wearing when she went missing. So is Sparma really the killer after all?
We get the answer to the above question in the next scene, where we see Deke putting a package of barrettes into the fire. Deke likely sent the barrette to give Jimmy a sense of closure. He doesn’t want the younger man to suffer as he has. So, we are left where we started. Sparma could be the killer, but then since no evidence is found against him, it is safe to deduce that the real killer is someone else.
Read More: Is The Little Things Based on a True Story?