The moral grey is explored in John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things, a film that proves the end never justifies the means.
All the small things. True care, truth brings. Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. There are times in our lives when terrible things happen that test our resolve to be decent people. Sometimes it’s as simple as coveting something that isn’t yours, and others, it is far murkier. Like The Tortured, desire for justice and completion can often lead to horrible decisions. In The Little Things, everything is shades of grey. You can’t always save the innocent, and there will be no conclusion to the story, only a continuation of suffering. Even small things like red barrettes have profound meanings.
The Little Things is about two men Baxter an always brilliant Rami Malek and Deke, played by Denzel Washington with a gravity-inducing amount of seriousness who want desperately to believe they are good people. They need to believe they did a necessary evil but know in their heart they are still wrong. As a police procedural or showcase for Washington and Malek’s talent, The Little Things works. As a moral judgment on the rightness of doing a wrong thing told through the lens of police brutality and the current social change, not so much. It’s tough to view police cover-ups, even fictionalized ones, without seeing George Floyd’s face.
Who was the killer in The Little Things?
The film has a lot to say more about who isn’t a killer in the right circumstances than who the actual serial killer is. It doesn’t matter if Albert Sparma, creepy Jared Leto doing what he does best, is the killer who has been working his way across Southern California for a decade. He may be the one that has killed all those women. He certainly wants everyone to think he is despite a lack of evidence. What matters is Baxter let Sparma turn him into a killer because he was so convinced his justice system would fail him. Deke and Baxter became fixated on him, and Sparma enjoyed the attention. He was so weird and offputting; the two cops could not believe anyone else could be the real killer.
After convincing Baxter to go with him into the desert and dig up the bodies, Sparma taunted Baxter into a rage. Baxter never found any bodies. When Sparma pushed too hard, Baxter snapped and killed him, becoming just as bad as Sparma. Potentially worse if Sparma is innocent. What does that say about a person and the state of law enforcement if the police don’t even trust themselves to bring justice to the wronged?
Deke is also a killer, having killed Mary all those years ago accidentally. He was panicked and fired at Mary, thinking she was the man who had kidnapped and tortured all those women. It is understandable if tragic. He had just seen several other dead bodies and was distraught in the dark. Just like Flo, the ME helped him cover up his mistake. Deke chooses to help Baxter cover up his.
What about the boots?
Those distinctive boots started this whole thing. Deke was sent down to LA to retrieve those boots at the beginning of the film. An eyewitness to a burglary in Kern County described those same boots. We later see them on Deke’s feet when he returns to Sparma’s house in hopes of finding evidence. By wearing the boots, he protects himself from detection and puts any potential blame on this random robber. The boots do not mean Deke is the serial killer; it just means he knows little things like shoe prints can trip you up.
The real irony of this is, the boot owner is almost certainly a killer himself. The blond woman at the beginning of the film was chased by a man wearing those same boots. The plot twist is that the boot owner took a plea deal earlier to avoid being caught for murder. It’s a grim little circle of death and legal incompetence caused by desperation.
Baxter will be haunted by what he allowed Sparma to goad him into doing. He won’t be plagued by a lack of closure, though. Deke saw to that. He knew from first-hand experience what guilt and failure could do to you. He made a terrible mistake resulting in the death of a young woman. Deke shot Mary, a kidnapped and tortured victim, thinking she was a killer. He did not choose to cover up his crime instead; he got assistance from ME Flo, who declared the shooting a stabbing to protect a “good cop.” She is largely able to avoid some of the nastier guilt Deke carries around because she didn’t make the killing, just the helping.
You can’t outrun the devil or your own conscience, though, and he was tainted from that point forward. The case he was investigating back then might be the same case he and Baxter are trying to solve now. It remained unsolved all this time. All the small things. True care, truth brings. He leaves me barrettes in the mail, showing that I didn’t fail. Who knew how prophetic Blink 182 could be? Deke mailed a red barrette he bought at the store to Baxter to assuage the guilt Baxter now carries and as a way to defeat the crushing weight of ambiguity. Truly good men will be haunted by doing a bad thing, though. The argument could easily be made; good men also don’t kill people.
The real tragedy here is the families of the victims don’t get the closure they deserve. There is also the nagging problem of the actual killer. What if Sparma is just a creeper? Stan Peters, the squirrely guy they brought in earlier in the film, had some odd reactions to the interrogation. Mary’s name caused a visible reaction, and he did shoot himself in the head shortly after. If the FBI profilers are to be believed, Leto’s Sparma can’t possibly be the killer. If neither Sparma nor Stan is the killer, everything will start again once the heat dies down. The man who owns the boots is a likely candidate, and he took a plea deal for burglary. He will be out on the streets, free to kill again someday. It’s a cycle of violence and terrible decisions followed by crushing guilt.
Sometimes you can want things too much. As bad as killing a potentially innocent, albeit disgusting human being is, lack of closure is worse. At least, that is the message Deke wants us to leave with. Baxter’s troubled look at the end and Deke’s life trajectory tell a different story, though. Doing bad things have consequence. Even if those consequences don’t include the justice system. The real message is no matter what you tell yourself at the end of the day to help you sleep, you can’t escape morality, and everyone must pay up one way or another. The devils in the details, or as Deke put it, “it’s the little things that get you caught.” Whether they be his or a criminal’s boots, Deke has already walked miles in a murderer’s shoes.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.