‘The Little Things’: The Ending of the New Denzel Washington Movie, Explained
[Spoilers ahead for The Little Things, obviously.]
On the surface, the new Denzel Washington movie The Little Things looks like a standard issue serial killer thriller. The film, which was released Jan. 29 in theaters and on HBO Max, focuses on a pair of cops — a grizzled veteran with a mysterious past and an ambitious, fresh-faced detective (Rami Malek) — investigating a string of murders in Los Angeles. But if you thought this noir-ish crime drama was going to wrap things up by revealing the killer’s identity, you’d be wrong. Instead, The Little Things opts for a much more ambiguous ending.
Denzel Washington and Rami Malek are on the hunt for a serial killer
In The Little Things, Washington is Joe “Deke” Deacon, a disgraced LAPD officer now working as a sheriff’s deputy in Kern County. During a trip to Los Angeles to collect evidence on another case, he crosses paths with a hotshot detective named Jim Baxter (Malek). Baxter is investigating a murder that bears a striking similarity to an unsolved crime Deke investigated years earlier.
The two cops team up to find the killer. Quickly, they zero in on Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), an unsettlingly creepy appliance repairman. There are plenty of small clues — the “little things” of the film’s title — pointing to Sparma’s guilt, but no hard evidence. Eventually, Sparma appears to confess. He offers to take Baxter to where the body of one of his supposed victims is buried. But once the two men are alone in the isolated California desert, a confrontation happens that changes the direction of the film.
Was Jared Leto’s character Albert Sparma the real killer in ‘The Little Things’?
Sparma drives Baxter to a remote location outside of Los Angeles, then tells him where to dig for the body. Sparma taunts the other man as he works. He asks how he can protect his wife and daughters if he can’t even find the killer, questions that eventually push Baxter over the edge. He bashes Sparma over the head with a shovel, killing him instantly. Then Deacon arrives, and he quickly sets about covering up what happened.
Both the detectives and viewers have good reason to believe Sparma was indeed behind the murders. He knows where one of the bodies was dumped, may have encountered another victim during his work as a repairman, and has a strange collection of newspaper clippings describing various crimes hidden under his floorboards. He also gets sexually excited when police show him photos of the dead victims. But all that evidence is circumstantial and no bodies are found in the field where Sparma is murdered. As a result, Baxter is tormented by his actions, as he can’t know for certain that he killed the real perpetrator.
Why Deke sends Baxter that red barrette
As Deke works to clean up the evidence of Baxter’s crime, viewers finally learn what caused him to leave the LAPD. While on the scene investigating two murders that Sparma may have committed, he accidentally shoots and kills an innocent woman. His wife, who works as a coroner, helps him cover up the incident, though it destroys his marriage and his career.
Deke wants to save Baxter from a similar fallout. He cleans out Sparma’s apartment and dumps his car, making it look like the suspected killer is on the run. Then, he has an envelope delivered to Baxter’s home. Inside is a red barrette. The missing woman that Baxter was searching for in the desert was last seen wearing a red barrette. Baxter assumes Deke found the barrette among Sparma’s possessions and that the dead man kept it as a trophy. Baxter takes it as proof the real killer is dead and the killing was morally, if not legally, justified.
However, the movie doesn’t end there. In the film’s last moments, Deke is back home in Bakersfield, where he’s burning some items that belonged to Sparma. He pulls a bag from the cab of his truck. Inside is a package of barrettes with a single one missing. He tosses it into the fire.
Both Deke and Baxter are searching for closure
Deke is haunted by his killing of an innocent woman and failure to apprehend a murderer. He aims to give his colleague the closure he never had by sending him the barrette. But the movie never answers the question of whether Sparma is the real killer. He’s definitely a weirdo, but the actual evidence against him is thin. There’s a very real possibility that in their zeal to find the killer, Baxter and Deke exaggerated the significance of the clues implicating Sparma.
Ultimately, The Little Things is more interested in the psychology of its two leads than it is in resolving what initially appears to be its central mystery. Sparma remains a cipher, while the dead women are no more than generic victims who serve only to move the plot along. Deke and Baxter are troubled by the actions they took in pursuit of solving the crime, but the primary reckoning they face is internal. The killings of two people — one definitely innocent, and the other possibly so — are swept under the rug.
The Little Things doesn’t exactly excuse Deke and Baxter’s actions. But it does ask the audience to sympathize with them, portraying each as a person who has made serious mistakes in the pursuit of good. That’s a troubling approach to take in a time when more and more people are asking questions about police violence and accountability. Sparma could be a serial killer, but some viewers might walk away feeling that Deke and Baxter are the real villains of the film, quietly hiding in plain sight.