The Little Things director breaks down the crime thriller's surprise ending
John Lee Hancock's new film stars Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto.
For most of its duration, the just-released crime thriller The Little Things plays like a traditional whodunnit? as two cops, played by Denzel Washington and Rami Malek, hunt for a serial killer, ultimately zeroing in on Jared Leto's sinister appliance repairman.
Then, things take a turn. After Leto's Albert Sparma lures Malek's Jim Baxter to the desert, the cop kills the suspect, a murder which Baxter and Washington's Joe Deacon cover-up. The two policemen get away with the crime, while the viewer is left in the dark as to the identity of the killer. "I always felt there would be a section of the audience that would prefer a very formulaic ending and there's nothing wrong with that," says writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Highwaymen). "I wanted to try and do something that was different."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how did you come up with the idea for the film, and in particular the ending, which I believe you originally dreamed up back in the first Clinton administration.
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: [Laughs] I don't know who was in office but it was 1993. I always liked crime dramas and psychological thrillers, but I felt a lot of movies in that genre at the time just weren't fulfilling to me. The first two acts were interesting and full of misdirects and clues and it was an interactive experience with the audience. Then, by the time you'd get to the third act, you'd identified the bad guy, and then the good guy and the bad guy would go face-off, and then there would be a moment when the good guy was going to lose, but then the good guy wins heroically. I always thought that was less interesting than the first two acts. I wanted to embrace the genre and the world while trying to subvert it and come up with an ending that was less formulaic but hopefully just as satisfying and interesting. I always felt there would be a section of the audience that would prefer a very formulaic ending and there's nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to try and do something that was different because that was what I was interested in and I thought hopefully people will realize that you're not just making another one of these crime dramas.
Is Albert Sparma guilty? What is his intention when he leads Jim Baxter out to the desert?
Honestly, when I wrote it, I just tried to build in as many things pointing to his guilt as points to his innocence. I think there is an equal number of each in the script. I can make an argument either way. I mean, he does say, "I've got to work tomorrow, come on let's go," which is a hint that nothing's going to happen out there. If he was taking him out there to go and find a body, then he certainly wouldn't be going to work the next day. Or is he lying?
Did Jared express an opinion about the character's guilt?
We talked about all the different things that pointed one way or another. He asked me, "What do you think?" And I said, "I don't know." I said, "I don't know and that's not what the movie's about." Either he was guilty and the crimes are going to stop or he's not and the crimes might keep going on. So, it's an ugly ending any way you look at it, it's all about the grey. He said, "I think I have to come to a decision about this." I said, "I understand that completely, just don't tell me." So he made a decision for himself and we were there to capture it."
Joe Deacon sends Rami Malek's character a barrette in the hope of convincing him that Sparma was the killer. Do you think Jim Baxter deep down knows Deacon didn't find it at Sparma's apartment?
Rami and I talked about it a lot on the day we shot the scene where the barrette is delivered to him. It's a careful balance. Does he believe that this is the barrette that was found in Sparma's apartment and therefore, even though he's done something horrible, this gives him a little hope to hold on to? But he's also smart enough to probably think, in the deep dark recesses of his mind late at night, is it? Is it the barrette or is it not? I think Rami played it beautifully.
Was the ending the reason it took so long to get the movie made?
Yes, there's an aspect of that that's true. There was an executive that once said, "I love the writing in this, if you change the ending we'll make it. We have to know!" I said, "Well, that's the reason I wrote the script, because you never know, so I'm not going to do that." And so, it went back in the closet.
So, would a sequel be called More Little Things or The Big Things?[Laughs] Oh boy. I don't think there would be a sequel. It's hard to think of Joe Deacon leaving the desert again to come back to Los Angeles.
Well, if you're going to refuse my invitation to cowrite More Little Things, then what are you working on?
Several different things right now, I'm not sure what's going next, but I'm writing with Bekah Brunstetter — the great playwright — on an adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. It's a very outside the box take on it for Apple TV. I'm also adapting Stephen King's novella Mr. Harrigan's Phone for Netflix to direct. So, we'll see.
The Little Things is in theaters (wear a mask!) and on HBO Max. Watch the film's trailer below.
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