Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: L.A. Confidential (1997)

And we're back with another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

This one's a little different for me, as I'd actually seen today's subject in the theaters when it came out.  But viewing L.A. Confidential as a rather naive 22-year-old, I must confess most of the film went way over my head.  The labrynthine plot, with its varied, seemingly unrelated threads and pretzel twists left me confused and disengaged by the end.  I dismissed the film as overrated and dull, and somehow erased 95% of it from my memory.  Indeed, I was surprised to discover on this second viewing that Danny Devito and James Cromwell were in it; that's how little I remembered.

So suffice it to say, this viewing of Curtis Hanson's acclaimed neo-noir was essentially a fresh look for me, and what a difference a quarter-century makes.  Where in 1997 I was largely unfamiliar with the film noir genre, 1950s culture, the appalling notion of corrupt police departments and their code of silence, etc., watching this film through my early-middle-aged 2022 lens, I was fascinated.  

For those unfamiliar, L.A. Confidential concerns three principle LAPD officers and a mass murder that may or may not have involved numerous cops, a stash of heroin, and a prostitution ring.  The three main characters are all seemingly on different sides of the straight-and-narrow.  Edmond Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young, clean-cut optimist who plays things by the book while taking advantage of every legitimate opportunity for career advancement.  His father was a police detective killed in the line of duty, the assailant never caught.  Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a tough-as-nails cop with a mission to punish abusive men (with good reason, as a 12-year-old he was forced to watch his father bludgeon his mother to death) and a penchant for beating a confession out of perps.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a star detective who consults on a hit TV show and also has a side hustle with a tabloid reporter, setting up high-profile celebrity arrests.  All three get wrapped up in the mass killing case, as their police captain (an icy James Cromwell) increasingly reveals that he may not be what he seems.
I think my favorite thing about the film is the way it toys with our allegiance as the audience.  Initially we identify fully with the straight shooter Exley, youthful, enthusiastic to do the right thing, even if it means seeing his fellow officers face consequences for their inappropriate conduct.  Early in the film White and Vincennes are both involved in the "Bloody Christmas" scandal, wherein a host of drunken cops severely beat seven prisoners in the holding cells (this actually happened), and Exley agrees to testify against them, while White refuses and Vincennes only agrees to cooperate after his TV gig is threatened.  White's partner Dick Stensland was one of the officers most involved, and so we view White as corrupt, thug-like, dangerous.  Vincennes on the other hand comes off as sleazy and self-absorbed, using his position of privilege to fuel his own celebrity.  But as the main story unfolds we gain respect for both of them, while also learning that Exley isn't perfect either.  In true film noir fashion all the protagonists are shades of gray.

The most famous supporting turn in the film is of course Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, a prostitute made up to look like Veronica Lake, part of a high-end escort roster of hookers who look like movie stars (mostly by way of plastic surgery).  Basinger is tender and understated here, developing a surprisingly sweet romantic connection with Bud White, while using her guile to keep the other officers at bay.  Basinger won an Oscar for her performance, though I still maintain that award should've gone to Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights.  Still, Basinger's work is strong here.

As for the three leads, Spacey is slyly sardonic as the cynical Vincennes, more concerned with his glamorous side gigs than with being a good detective.  Pearce is stiff and formal as Exley, diligent to see justice done to the letter of the law but determined to do his father proud and symbolically avenge his death.  Crowe is terse, tight-lipped and fearsome as White, like a panther at rest, explosively violent when angered.  All three actors have clearly drawn territory to explore, and they all excel.

L.A. Confidential is a 1950s hard-boiled detective story told with the in-your-face excess of 1990 cinema, a surprisingly harmonious marriage of styles actually.  Both the classic film noir era and its late-90s counterpart occupied worlds in which there were no true heroes and the country was coming down from the falsely simplistic notion of good vs. evil.  During both World War II and Cold War 1980s the lines seemed clearly drawn; it was all about freedom vs. tyranny.  We were the good guys, "the other" were the bad guys.  But then we woke up from that dream and were disheartened to learn the truth - that in many ways we were no better than the people we vilified.  Corrupt, decadent, dishonest in the means in which we achieved our ends.  No matter how pure our intentions, in the end even the best of us are flawed and compromised.

I give L.A. Confidential ***1/2 out of ****.

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