The film’s conclusion feels icky when placed in a larger context.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Little Things.]
The Little Things doesn’t have a big “twist” as much as it decides to go in a different direction when it reaches its final act. The whole film has been building to detectives Deke (Denzel Washington) and Baxter (Rami Malek) hunting down a serial killer. Their chief suspect is the creepy Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who delights in taunting the detectives, but there’s no definitive evidence that can link him to the murders. In the third act, Sparma decides to lure Baxter to a deserted field and tells him to dig to find a missing young woman. As Baxter digs, Sparma continues to taunt him until Baxter snaps, hits Sparma in the head with the shovel and kills him. Deke arrives on the scene, realizes what’s happened, and immediately helps Baxter orchestrate a cover-up. We then learn that part of the reason Deke has been so haunted over the years is he too engaged in an accidental killing and covered up the murder.
You can kind of see what writer/director John Lee Hancock is going for here. Both Deke and Baxter are being consumed by guilt over needing to solve this case and the uncertainty of being able to catch the killer. They’ve seized on Sparma not because that’s where the evidence has led them, but because he presents an idea of closure. Hancock twists that idea of closure by having Baxter kill Sparma and then Deke comes in not only to cover up the crime, but then send Baxter a red barrette to try and reassure him with the lie that Sparma was definitely responsible for the killings. By seeking closure, these men have further isolated themselves in the world and must live with the guilt of their actions.
The problem is that the film is too sympathetic towards Deke and Baxter. Ultimately, they are the film’s heroes, and when they cross that line of doing an evil thing, the film gives them a cop-out by showing that Deke’s shooting was accidental and Sparma basically had it coming by taunting a guy who was already primed to kill him. Deke and Baxter are painted as Good Men who do a Bad Thing, and then the film tries to swim in the grey area where they live with the guilt of their actions, but also find some semblance of peace by trying to put the world back together in a way that makes sense. They’ve received closure, but at a high personal cost.
However, that high personal cost doesn’t really reconcile the injustice of their actions. Because The Little Things is more interested in Deke and Baxter as individual actors rather than part of a system, the film limits itself by only exploring the emotional toll their actions have taken. But that’s a bad direction to go when we live in an environment when cops already face little accountability for actions that could be deemed criminal. The Little Things takes place in a world where Deke and Baxter are so afraid of consequences, that they stage elaborate cover ups when in reality (a reality that the film embraces with its long shots over murdered women) they could probably just go to their superior, said they were fearful of their safety, and the D.A. wouldn’t bring charges. That story ends not with Baxter sitting pensively by his swimming pool, but probably with a paid leave-of-absence followed by either his return to the department or a transfer to a new county.
One could counter that by setting the film in 1990, Hancock avoids these current events, but these events have sadly always been current. Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in March 1991, five months after the events of The Little Things, and it’s not like King was the first person ever assaulted by the police who then got away with their crimes. Creating a narrative about how cops commit crimes in the name of personal closure and then feel kind of guilty about it afterwards is letting powerful people off the hook. While it is possible to thread this needle of cops melting down in their search for answers (Memories of Murder does this particularly well), The Little Things comes off as kind of tone-deaf. It’s one thing to ponder the inner lives of your officers, but Hancock ultimately turns a blind eye towards what these cover ups do to a society.
The vicious rapist and killer isn’t even named until the end of the penultimate episode.
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