The Little Things Ending Explained: The Dark, Unexpected Conclusion

Denzel Washington repeats the lines, “It’s the little things that get you caught,” several times in his new movie, The Little Things, which also stars Jared Leto and Rami Malek. Those haunting lines come back full force in The Little Things ending. The Little Things is a crime drama written and directed by John Lee Hancock. It follows veteran cop Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) and newer detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) as they try to find a serial killer. Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) becomes their prime suspect.

The Little Things is a crime drama that leans heavily on character study. It’s less about the action, or even the victims and crime, and more about these three men’s relationship with perceived innocence or guilt. The Little Things ending had a lot to unpack, so let’s dive into it.

Rami Malek and Jared Leto in The Little Things

What Happened At The End Of The Little Things

Jared Leto's Sparma (easily) convinces Baxter to accompany him to a desert. He promises to lead him to the body of Rhonda Rathbun (Maya Kazan). Sparma has Baxter dig for Rathbun while continuing to taunt him. Eventually, Sparma brings up Baxter’s family. He says that if Baxter can’t protect these dead girls, how is he supposed to protect his daughters. Baxter snaps and hits Sparma with the shovel, which kills him.

Meanwhile, Deacon has finally found Baxter and Sparma. He sees Sparma’s body lying on the ground and then flashes to over five years ago when he was searching for the third body of a missing girl. Sal (Chris Bauer) calls for Deacon, and he gets thrown off, just as he’s talking to Sal, he hears someone running towards him. Without looking, he shoots, not realizing until it's too late that the person approaching was the missing girl, whom he shoots straight in the chest.

In the present, upon realizing that Baxter killed Sparma, Deacon kicks into cover-up mode, and directs Baxter to dig a hole for Sparma’s body. He then gathers all Sparma’s possessions and gives his car to a random man on the street. Later, Deacon tells Baxter to forget about Sparma and what happened because if he does anything related to him, Sparma will come back to haunt him. “It’s the little things that get you caught.”

We then see Baxter at home staring off. He gets a package from Deacon containing a red barrette. Rathbun’s parents told Baxter that she always wore a red barrette while running, so her killer would likely have it. We also see another flashback of Farris (Terry Kinney) and the coroner Dunigan (Michael Hyatt) helping cover up Deacon’s crime. Dunigan puts the woman’s death as a result of stab wounds instead of from a gunshot. We then see Deacon in the present burning all of Sparma’s stuff, and then a close up of a package of barrettes missing the red one.

Rami Malek in The Little Things

Does The Little Things Ending Offer Any Resolution To Its Viewers?

During The Little Things ending, Deacon tries to give Baxter a sense of comfort and resolution with the red barrette. The red barrette is supposed to prove that Sparma was the killer, at least of Rathbun. However, viewers learn that Deacon bought the barrette and didn’t find it at Sparma’s house. This leaves viewers with no resolution on who killed these women or if Sparma was guilty. He told Baxted he'd never killed anyone, so it's entirely possible he was just messing with the detectives and the real killer is still out there.

And though Baxter may have had temporary relief, Deacon’s gesture may eventually not be comforting at all. The FBI have now taken over the case, and they may find the actual killer and the real red barrette, proving that Baxter killed an innocent man. Viewers aren’t told whether Sparma did it or not, it’s up to the audience to decide, but I think enough evidence points to Sparma not being the killer.

Jared Leto and Rami Malek in The Little Things

Is Sparma Innocent Or Guilty?

At least twice in the movie, Sparma says “the truth is I didn’t kill anyone,” and of course, a killer is not going to be like yeah it was me... or would they? Based on the way Sparma got so excited about learning about the murder, reading about murders (he had a copy of Helter Skelter), and playing cat and mouse with Baxter and Deacon, I believe he would actually gloat about his crimes if he was really the murderer. Sparma even confessed to murdering once but was proven innocent. There is also a line where Sparma tells Baxter that he hasn’t thought about the difficulty of dealing with a dead body.

I think Sparma has toyed with the idea of killing people but never acted on it. He also looked genuinely shocked (also maybe fascinated) looking at the crime scene pictures. John Lee Hancock doesn’t really give much evidence to support Sparma being the killer, except him being creepy. The only reason he’s a suspect is because Deacon convinces himself and Baxter that he did it.

So The Little Things audience can, like Baxter, convince themselves that Sparma was the killer, or look at the evidence and see that he probably wasn’t, and the cops got away with murdering innocent people (for now). Other viewers will interpret the evidence completely differently, and see Sparma as the clear serial killer, and that’s the beauty of The Little Things ending, it’s ambiguous, so it’s up to the audience to interpret any way they see fit (or leave it ambiguous and move on with their lives).

Rami Malek and Denzel Washington in The Little Things

How The Little Things Disrupts Procedural Detective Stories

In Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast, Jared Leto mentioned that when picking prosthetics and wigs for Sparma, he wanted him to look familiar but not quite familiar. He wanted him to look slightly off. These little decisions about Sparma’s appearance play into the overall idea of The Little Things. It has a familiar police procedural, crime thriller feel but it doesn’t quite follow the formula. It feels similar to films like Se7en and another David Fincher film Zodiac, but it doesn’t quite morph into these movies, nor those crime by number films.

When John Lee Hancock wrote The Little Things in 1993, he set out to break the cop film formula. He told The Wrap this about how the idea came to be:

I just remember really liking crime dramas and psychological thrillers, but also feeling that especially some of the ones in the ’80s had become a little paint-by-numbers. I would like all the clues and the misdirects and the complications, and then you’d get to the third act where the bad guy is identified and the good guys give chase. And usually there’s some kind of action set piece, and then there’s a face-off and the good guy heroically defeats the bad guy.And I thought, 'Why does the third act have to be less interesting than the first two?' So I wanted to see if I could have something that unravels in a way that is non-formulaic but also satisfying.

The Little Things has many opportunities to go the standard route of good guys win, bad guys lose with this crime thriller, but instead The Little Things ending kind of makes everyone involved the bad guy. No good guys win this one.

Denzel Washington an Rami Malek in The Little Things

The Little Things’ Spin On The Rookie And Veteran Cop Dynamic

Another way, The Little Things goes against expectations is the relationship between Deacon and Baxter. Most crime dramas (or buddy comedies) involve a rookie cop and veteran cop butting heads until they learn to work together. However, in The Little Things, at first, Baxter takes the “I’m going to prove I’m better” approach with Deacon, but quickly Deacon becomes a mentor to him.

Their relationship becomes more of a burden the closer they become. Baxter is almost the before picture of Deacon. The fact that they both end up with a similar fate shows how the mentor-student relationship takes a turn for the worst. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hancock described their shared obsession as “an infection” that’s passed from Deacon to Baxter. The more Deacon is around Baxter, the more Baxter becomes like Deacon.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in The Little Things

Obsessions And Ambiguity Are The Villains In The Little Things

Some could argue that Deacon is the villain in The Little Things, and in some ways he is, but the real villain is his obsession. Obsession is what ends up destroying all three of these men: Deacon’s obsessed with what he did all those years ago, Baxter with being a hero and solving this case, and Sparma with the criminal mind in general.

The second villain is ambiguity and truth-seeking. It’s the not knowing that drives people mad, in this movie and in life in general. People believe they need answers for everything and that can lead to innovation, creation, and success, but it can also be the little thing that causes the biggest disruption in someone’s life.

The Little Things is available to stream on HBO Max until February 28. Stream it here.

Jerrica Tisdale
Freelance Writer

Spent most of my life in various parts of Illinois, including attending college in Evanston. I have been a life long lover of pop culture, especially television, turned that passion into writing about all things entertainment related. When I'm not writing about pop culture, I can be found channeling Gordon Ramsay by kicking people out the kitchen.