The Ending of 'The Little Things' Explained

What's the meaning of the ending of the new 1990s throwback serial killer movie on HBO Max? Perhaps we need to look at David Fincher's 'Se7en' for answers? Or maybe there are no clear conclusions at all.

The Little Things ending
Warner Bros. / HBO Max

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we travel back to 1990s Los Angeles to investigate the ending of The Little Things.


Many reviews of John Lee Hancock‘s The Little Things are calling the movie a rip-off of David Fincher’s Se7en (which was written by Andrew Kevin Walker). But is it the other way around? “I wrote it before Se7en,” Hancock told Deadline over a month before the release of The Little Things, which has taken decades to finally come to fruition as a movie. “I came across a draft the other day that said it was first registered with the Writers Guild in spring of 1993.”

The parallels are coincidental? I don’t believe Walker would have been aware of the script and then reworked it for his own. But then why didn’t Hancock just forget about his old script or bother to change the obvious similarities? The Little Things, like Se7en, has an older Black cop working with a young hotshot detective on a case of a serial killer. In the earlier-produced film, the man they’re looking for winds up turning himself in and then takes the duo out to a field in the middle of nowhere to reveal a final victim, but (spoiler alert for the ending of Se7en) it’s all part of his master plan to turn the younger cop into a murderer representing the final deadly sin of wraith. In the new movie, the main suspect taunts the younger cop, luring him out to the middle of nowhere to reveal a final victim, but the young cop similarly murders the suspect in a moment of rage.

The main difference between the two movies’ conclusions is that the suspect in Se7en is indeed the serial killer, but in The Little Things, the suspect (Jared Leto doing his best dramatic-phase Jim Carrey) is never proven to be the guy. I guess that makes The Little Things seem to be influenced by Fincher’s Zodiac, as well. Interestingly enough, the disconnect between Se7en and The Little Things makes the latter a bleaker and possibly more realistic version of the same situation. After the hotshot in Se7en (played by Brad Pitt) shoots the killer John Doe, he’s presumably punished for his crime. After the hotshot in The Little Things (played by Rami Malek) fatally whacks his suspect with a shovel, the act is covered up with the help of the veteran cop (Denzel Washington). And it’s revealed that the elder officer has some experience with such schemes.

There are a few twists at the end that will both satisfy and not satisfy mainstream audiences. First is the death of Leto’s character, which means we’re not going to get a concrete confession or proof of guilt. The second is when Malek’s cop, still in shock and taking a necessary vacation to work out his feelings of guilt, receives an evidence envelope with a red barrette indicating that Leto’s character had killed the last, missing young woman, and Washington’s character had found the item in the guy’s apartment. Finally, at the very end of the film, we see Washington throw away a bunch of barrettes he had bought, with one of them removed, revealing that the “evidence” was part of the cover-up and meant to make the hotshot think he was absolved of wrongdoing. At least, outside the boundaries of morality and justice, that is.

The Little Things was written in the early 1990s and is set in the first year of that decade, prior to the Rodney King beating and failure of justice there. Hancock may have been influenced by what was going on with the LAPD at the time. Perhaps his intent was to show that cops get away with corruption of the sort Washington and Malek’s characters commit. I don’t believe the movie aims to show them in a positive light. But there’s something to the way The Little Things aligns its focus on the cop characters similarly to the way action movies and crime films did back then (Washington’s out-of-town character investigating a case in LA while on “vacation” is very Beverly Hills Cop). When Washington’s character breaks into Leto’s character’s apartment to snoop around rather than search the place via warrant, it becomes one part of the misconduct in retrospect with the climactic context. Yet it’s otherwise a common crime for “hero” cop characters throughout film history.

DEKE

You work the evidence and come up with zeroes. Happens to everybody. Then you draw the black bean. Maybe the victim looks like a kid you picked on in the schoolyard. Maybe their green eyes remind you of your old lady. Or maybe it’s something else. But for some reason they’re your lifelong responsibility. You own ’em. They’re wherever they are and you’re their angel; trying like hell to turn the ledger from red to black… Word to the wise, Jimmy. Stay outta the angel business.

Los Angeles is nicknamed the City of Angels, but that’s anything but true in the hardboiled portrayals of LA in cinema. In the evidence envelope that Washington’s character sends to Malek’s, the elder cop has written “NO ANGELS.” He’s reminding the hotshot of what he’d told him earlier, how they can’t be in the angel business because they aren’t going to save all of the ones who become personal missions. Maybe especially not those. It’s Chinatown, Jake, and it’s every other part of the city. Unfortunately, Hancock doesn’t make it clear whether he is accepting of this or criticizing it. No, he doesn’t have to like his characters or make the audience like them. But does he need to be clearer if what he’s doing is trying to tell us that all cops are wolves in sheep’s clothing? Maybe it’s just an early, less-than-refined script where he was trying to go against the grain.

“Most of the movies about cops on the trail of a killer were really fun for the first two acts,” Hancock says in the Deadline interview when asked about the original script’s inception. “In the third, the cop would find out who was doing the killing, and then it would be by rote. Big face-off, and the cop would seemingly be beaten down and would come back and kill the guy in some morbid fashion. That always disappointed me. I thought: must the third act be just running around shooting at each other when the first two acts with all the clues were so interesting? I was trying to turn away from that and come up with a third act that would be surprising and hopefully still be fulfilling.”

Well, the third act of The Little Thing is certainly different than the expected denouement of the era, and back then, maybe it would have been even more shocking to audiences. While not clever like the twist of Se7en, it’s still fairly original. Thirty years later, it’s still far from conventional, but it also seems outdated at the same time. Whether it’s fulfilling is up for debate or merely up to the viewer, especially given that it’s open to interpretation what point it’s making.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.