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The Ending Of The Little Things Explained

Contains spoilers for The Little Things

As one of the first HBO Max major releases under Warner Bros.' historic 2021 distribution strategy, The Little Things has a lot riding on it — but just as much going for it. 

Led by Oscar winners Rami Malek, Jared Leto, and the highly discerning Denzel Washington, the film follows Deputy Sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon (Washington) and Sgt. Jim Baxter (Malek) as they team up to catch a serial killer. Set in Los Angeles during 1990, the two diligently and eventually obsessively attempt to catch the man they believe to be the killer in a  series of violent murders. That man is the narcissistic and egotistical self-proclaimed crime buff Albert Sparma (Leto), who dangerously engages the veteran and rising hotshot in a cat-and-mouse game. 

Ignoring other officers' warnings, Baxter increasingly leans on the instincts and experience of Deke, whose dark past still haunts him and, as the young detective soon finds out, will create a few new ghosts. Directed and written by John Lee Hancock, Jr., whose past work includes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Blind Side, Snow White and the Huntsman, and most recently true-crime gem The Highway Men, the film has been in development since 1993 — and it shows in just about every aesthetic and narrative element of the movie. 

On the surface, The Little Things is a plot-driven neo-noir crime thriller about two "good men" and their hunt for a notorious serial killer. But by the end of the film, it's a character-driven drama about the dangerous grey areas of criminal justice, the guilt, regret, and mistakes that follow those who work in it, and how far someone will go to get justice — real or imagined. Here's the ending of The Little Things explained. 

Jim Baxter and Albert Sparma take a trip that ends in blood

After a somewhat slow and winding case that increasingly points to Leto's bugged-eye and pale-faced Sparma as the killer, the two realize that they still don't have enough to catch him and are fearful that he may strike again. They (and the film) are convinced they've got the real killer — a hunch dramatically underscored by a survivor and a rather convincing portrayal from Leto — and begin to watch him at his home, in addition to tailing him around town. Sparma realizes this, and one night while toying with the duo, he corners Baxter, promising to reveal where the latest victim is buried. So desperate to nail Sparma, close this high-profile case, and get justice, Baxter gets in the car with the man and drives out to the desert. 

Deke sees the two as they drive away and rushes to follow them in his car through the city and to a remote location seemingly owned by Sparma. But because he's so far behind the two, he misses the turn-off and ends up driving past where the younger detective and the alleged killer have actually pulled off. While Deke wanders through the night attempting to find his partner, Sparma provides Baxter with a shovel, forcing him to dig holes around an empty dirt lot with the promise that with each new hole, he'll get closer to the body. But Sparma's smarmy ego is a bit too much for Baxter, who is now so obsessed and upset that it clouds his judgment and messes with his emotional restraint. 

After poking the bear one too many times, Sparma meets his bloody end when Baxter — in a fit of emotion — swings at him with the shovel and knocks him out. Shortly after, Deke finally finds the location Sparma took his partner, but it's too late. Sparma is dead, and Baxter is completely broken down.

Deputy Sheriff Deacon attempts to save his partner from his fate

With Baxter scrambling to convince himself and Deke that Sparma was the killer, the older sheriff — who viewers find out is no stranger to killing innocent people, on accident or otherwise — proceeds to take control of the situation. He commands Baxter to fill in the holes and bury Sparma with the promise that he'll be back in the morning. The young detective gets busy burying evidence of his crime after failing to find any evidence of Sparma's, and Deke returns to the suspected killer's apartment, cleaning it out and making it appear as if Sparma has fled. 

Shortly after, viewers see a new detective has been assigned to the serial killing case, and they seemingly believe the scene Deke has set for them, shifting their case to finding a fleeing Sparma. Baxter now sits at home in front of his pool, watching his two daughters play in the pool, mentally depleted and emotionally distraught by what he's done. That's when his wife brings him a piece of mail and when he opens it, a red hair clip falls out, alluding to a piece of evidence missing from one of the killer's victims. It's a comfort for Baxter, who cannot come to terms with potentially killing an innocent man. 

What Baxter doesn't see, however, is Deke cleaning Sparma's belongings from his trunk. He's burning any evidence of the suspected killer, covering up the young detective's crime. Just as he goes to shut his trunk, Deke picks up a metal box hidden beneath Sparma's floorboards and seemingly contained items taken from his victim. But when the sheriff opens it, it's empty. We then see an entire set of red hair clips, alluding to Deke having purchased them to send one to Baxter to ease his conscience and prevent the younger man from turning out like him: divorced, an embarrassment at his old job, and unable to be free of his guilt.