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The Little Things Ending Explained: Who Was the Killer?

The Little Things Ending Explained: Who Was the Killer?


  • The Little Things offers a twist ending that focuses on redemption and guilt, rather than the killer’s identity.
  • The film’s ambiguous conclusion may leave viewers with more questions than answers, sparking debate.
  • Deacon’s act of sending false evidence to Baxter serves as an act of empathy and redemption for his own past actions.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, The Little Things is an underrated crime thriller that requires repeated viewings to understand its twist ending. The story takes place in 1990 Los Angeles and follows the detective work of veteran Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) and his young partner, Jim Baxter (played by Rami Malek). As the two detectives track down a serial killer they believe to be a local suspect named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), what begins as a routine police procedural is revealed to be a character-driven redemption story for the real culprits.

Despite the convincing performances of the three Oscar-winning leads, The Little Things has been both praised and panned for its ambiguous ending that presents more head-scratching questions than clear-cut answers regarding the killer’s identity. While the serial killer’s identity seems to be beside the point for Hancock, the ending of The Little Things serves more to cleanse Deacon and Baxter’s corrupted souls than anything else. For a better understanding, it’s time to explain the ending of The Little Things and identify who is responsible for each murder.

What Is The Little Things About?

Deacon examines a corpse in The Little Things
Warner Bros.

The Little Things is a 2021 mystery crime thriller that begins when a young woman is pursued on a highway by a mysterious motorist before narrowly escaping captivity. Later, viewers meet Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington), a Kern County Sheriff in Bakersfield sent to Los Angeles to collect evidence about a local murder.

Deke meets Jim Baxter (Malek), his cocky new partner, who believes the evidence points to a local serial killer’s modus operandi of targeting young women. Deke is haunted by the deaths of several female sex workers in 1985, staying up at night and seeing visions of their spirits. He becomes so obsessed with the case of one specific girl’s death that he has a heart attack and sees his marriage end in divorce.

Soon, a young woman named Ronda Rathbun (Maya Kazan) goes for a jog at night and is stalked and murdered by an unknown assailant. The stab wounds and murder weapon appear to be consistent with the other murders Deacon and Baxter have been investigating. When another body washes up beneath a bridge, the investigation leads Deacon to Albert Sparma (Leto), a creepy man who works at a nearby repair shop. Deacon and Baxter become increasingly convinced that Sparma is guilty of the repeated murders, but cannot prove it. All they can muster is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that suggests Sparma’s guilt but lacks tangible proof to put him in jail.

Evidence Pointing to Sparma’s Guilt

Sparma hold up a hand in The Little Things
Warner Bros.

As their investigation continues, Deacon and Baxter collect a ton of circumstantial evidence pointing to Sparma’s guilt. They find the same type of wire in Sparma’s repair shop that was used to tie one of the victim’s hands. Inside Sparma’s apartment, Deacon finds a shelf of books about serial killers, the same brand of Busch’s beer found at one of the victims’ houses, a knife with the tip cut off (potential murder weapon), and homemade VHS tapes named after various women.

Sparma also has a trap door in his apartment where hidden newspaper clippings of the serial murders are kept. Sparma claims he’s a crime buff and has a police scanner to follow their activity. By now, viewers can’t tell if Sparma is a true crime fanatic or a genuine killer who uses the police scanner to stay one step ahead of the law.


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Additional evidence pointing to Sparma’s guilt includes an old car with high mileage, which Deacon and Baxter presumed would be the case for a serial road stalker operating for years. Furthermore, the Los Angeles murderers ceased when Albert conveniently relocated to Detroit, where a near-identical gory murder of a sex worker took place.

One of the dead bodies in L.A. showed traces of Sodium Benzoate, a chemical found in photographic development and dental hygiene products. Sparma has dentures that require such dental cleaning chemicals and his apartment also has a makeshift dark room for photographic development.

Evidence Suggesting Sparma’s Innocence

Baxter and Sparma face off in The Little Things
Warner Bros.

By now, all signs point to Sparma as the culprit in the serial killer movie on Netflix. However, all the evidence gathered is circumstantial and lacks hard proof to put him in jail. Despite the signs, Deacon and Baxter are unable to find fingerprints, a murder weapon, or any other physical evidence linking Sparma to the murders. That is until the final act arrives, forcing viewers to alter their perspectives regarding the guilty party. But before that happens, Sparma’s potential innocence is entertained.

In addition to Sparma’s incriminating evidence, his innocence is also hinted at. In 1982, Sparma happily confessed to a murder he did not commit and was wrongly jailed for the crime. Sparma also possesses a much different car than the brown vehicle the killer drives in the opening scene during his murder attempt. Moreover, a quick glimpse of the killer’s face in the dark reveals a clean-shaven man with glasses. Sparma, who has long hair and a scruffy beard, couldn’t possibly have grown his hair in the two-day time frame presented in the film.

Although Sparma studies the work of serial killers, it does not necessarily mean he is responsible for anyone’s murder. A knife resembling the murder weapon is never found in Sparma’s possession, only duct tape, a belt, and some gloves. These items were not found at the crime scenes and are easily explained by his job as a repairman.

Moreover, the killer’s MO has seemingly changed from targeting sex workers in 1985 to random female civilians in 1990, which further suggests Sparma’s innocence. It isn’t until the literal lynchpin of the case comes to light in the form of a Red Hair Barrette that answers come into much sharper focus.

The Ending and The Red Barrette Explained

Joe holds a pack of barrettes in The Little Things
Warner Bros.

When Deacon and Baxter finally confront Sparma in the underrated serial killer movie, the detectives demand to know where he dumped Ronda Rathbun’s body. Sparma taunts and toys with the detectives, and leads them on a wild goose chase in the desert. After making Baxter dig several holes in the ground in search of Ronda’s body, Baxter eventually snaps and fatally bashes Sparma in the head with a shovel.

Deacon orders Baxter to bury Sparma’s body in the desert while he collects evidence from Sparma’s apartment. Shocked to the core and wracked with guilt over killing a potentially innocent man in a crime of passion, Baxter falls into a depression that threatens his work and happy home life.

A flashback shows why Deacon has been haunted by the obsessions of one of the female victims he’s been investigating. In 1985, Deacon accidentally shoots an innocent woman to death and his partners, Farris (Terry Kinney) and Dunigan (Michael Hyatt) help him cover it up. Deacon has been tormented with guilt and grief ever since, which has ripped his life apart. Knowing that Baxter is in a similar position after killing Sparma in the heat of the moment, Deacon makes a charitable effort to absolve Baxter of his sense of guilt and remorse.


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Upon interviewing Ronda Rathburn’s parents earlier in the movie, they tell Baxter that she never jogged without her red hair barrette. In the movie’s final moments, Baxter receives a red hair barrette in the mail. The barrette was sent by Deacon, who Baxter believes found it inside Sparma’s apartment while combing for evidence. However, the camera shows a pack of brand-new hair barrettes beside Deacon, with the Candy Apple red one missing.

The truth is, that Deacon bought a pack of hair barrettes and sent the red one to Baxter to make Baxter believe he killed a guilty man, not an innocent one. In the ultimate expression of empathy, Deacon knows how guilt can ruin a person’s life and goes out of his way to ensure Baxter’s life doesn’t fall apart as he has.

Deacon finds slight redemption by repairing Baxter’s wounded soul and offering him a second chance, something Deacon could not do for himself. After all, Baxter has a beautiful wife, two children, and his whole life ahead of him. If the guilt continues to overtake his life, Baxter will lose his family as Deacon did.

While it’s impossible to know for sure if Sparma killed anyone in the Denzel Washington thriller, it’s beside the point. What’s certain is that Deacon accidentally killed an innocent young woman, covered it up, and has been haunted ever since. It’s also certain that Baxter inadvertently murdered Sparma, and Deacon tried to alleviate Baxter’s guilty conscience by sending him false evidence of Sparma murdering Ronda. The final images of The Little Things show Deacon burning the collected evidence, including the pack of hair barrettes; the pin that ties the entire story together.

The Little Things is available to stream on Max & Netflix.

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