There’s a beauty to L.A. Confidential that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize. The film stands out as a compelling mystery, engaging drama, and top-level cops-and-robbers tale, and while all those things go into making it one of the best films of the 1990s, it’s the movie’s setting and source that add the final mythical X-factor and transform it into something grand. Based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel — the third in his L.A. Quartet series, which began with The Black Dahlia — the film hews closely to its hardboiled origins while also serving as an outlet for our collective fantasies as a nation of moviegoers brought up on Hollywood. As far as sin cities go, Las Vegas has nothing on the City of Angels, and the Golden Age of Hollywood, with all its attendant sleaze and corruption and dark-hearted glory, has become so mythologized in film and literature that it’s almost too big to comprehend. The story could literally not happen anywhere else than in that archetypal town that stands for everything we’ve done wrong and everything we’d do again. L.A. Confidential is at once arresting for its ethical nuance and stunning in the way it seems to stand at a remove from the entire thing. Most of the characters in the film aren’t struggling with immorality, but amorality; they are literally outside of any consideration of an ethical code, and the choices they initially make are solely for their own net gain.
The film opens with a blast of nostalgic footage that quickly turns to news clips of drugs, hookers, and mob murders, all set to the deliciously rotten-toned narration of Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens. Before the dust can settle, the film introduces the three cops whose lives and investigations will eventually interweave: Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hulking brute who lands somewhere between psychotic and chivalrous; Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an up-and-coming officer who soon makes detective; and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cocky showboat who’s disillusioned with the thin blue line and spends his days acting as the technical advisor for the “Dragnet”-level drama “Badge of Honor.” The three men are each introduced with a slow crawl of typewriter text as the camera finds them in the natural habitats: Bud is sitting on an unofficial stakeout and getting ready to beat the tar out of an abusive ex-con; Exley is on the job at the station, keeping order over the Christmas festivities; and Jack is dancing on set at a “Badge of Honor” party. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, under the direction of Curtis Hanson, gives the film a richly colored look instead of the sepia-toned images that tend to surface in period dramas, and the way he shoots the three central characters the first time they walk across the stage is anything but accidental. Bud and Exley are seen staring toward the camera at something in the distance, Bud to the right of the frame and Exley to the left. These men are the two warring halves of the same idea of masculinity forged in wartime America: Exley is intelligent but scheming, Bud is noble but wild. They won’t be able to solve the case(s) without each other because they won’t be able to fully be themselves without each other.
Hanson is working at the top of his game from the start, holding together a sprawling and complex narrative with pure force and verve and the drive to tell a good story. It’s hard to find any particular through-line in Hanson’s body of work, which ranges from Losin’ It to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to the pitch-perfect adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Perhaps the best way to describe him is a solid, and occasionally gifted, storyteller, a filmmaker whose economy of style never threatens to overtake the story itself. He adapted the screenplay with Brian Helgeland, who’s had success of his own adapting crime novels by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and Michael Connelly (Blood Work) under the direction of Clint Eastwood, and who directed his own script on Payback before Paramount screwed with it, which was itself based on Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter, which in turn became 1967’s Point Blank. All of which is just a ridiculously long way of saying that Hanson and Helgeland know what the hell they’re doing with a story like this one.
Exley, Bud, and Jack are first drawn together in the aftermath of what the papers called Bloody Christmas, when several young Latino men were beaten at the station house on Christmas Eve. Exley testifies against Bud’s partner, who’s booted off the force for his involvement in the brutality, and Pearce plays his eagerness to testify with a mix of forthrightness and weaselly cunning; all the performances here are worth praising, but Pearce is so good precisely because he has the guts to be a slightly slimy good guy, a man whose readiness to cut a deal and boost his career earns knowing glances from his superiors. Jack agrees to testify, as well, in exchange for a slap on the wrist and a transfer from narcotics to vice. Bud refuses to name names and is suspended but eventually pulled back into personal service for Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a cold man who uses Bud as a personal attack dog to whale on dope pushers and low-level criminals.
Hanson’s narrative follows the men as they each wind up pursuing different angles of what comes to be the case that ties the whole story together: a mass killing at the Nite Owl coffesehop, whose victims include Bud’s former partner and a girl Bud met the night of the disastrous Christmas party. Bud tracks down the dead girl and eventually winds up talking to Lynn Bracken, a high-class call girl played by Kim Basinger with a mix of sad sexuality and vulnerability that rightly earned her the Academy Award for best supporting actress. Basinger’s career was built on being a beautiful but empty blonde, which makes the work she does here all the more compelling; it’s as if she’s not just living the role, but using it as her one refutation of the idea that she could never do it in the first place. Lynn and Bud have an immediate chemistry, and their bruised romantic subplot is just one more component of the film’s gritty mood.
From the other side, Exley is trying to solve the mystery of the Nite Owl murders because he doesn’t believe that the three black youths arrested for the crime are actually guilty. His working relationship with Bud worsens by the day, and he eventually makes his own way to Lynn. Over in vice, Jack is chasing down a lead for a company called Fleur de Lis, whose proprietor, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), is a pimp with a stable of women “cut to look like movie stars,” among them Bud’s own Lynn, who doubles for Veronica Lake. Patchett urges Jack to find out who really committed the Nite Owl killings because one of his girls was in the shop at the time. But as relatively simple as all that sounds, Hanson’s film has a much greater sprawl to it, barreling from point to point and veering from one plot to another with the manic energy of Los Angeles itself. Exley, Bud, and Jack all find themselves working against the corruption that’s running rampant through the force, though it’s telling that none of them are the least bit surprised at any of it. When certain guilty parties finally come to light, the three men leading the charge don’t have nay kind of righteous anger at being betrayed by their brothers in blue, merely a kind of resigned disappointment; after all, it had to be somebody.
The disparate investigations begin to collide until Exley, Bud, and Jack find themselves working on one giant case, and it’s here that the movie actually manages to raise its energy as it plows toward the ever more inevitable confrontation between, if not good and evil, then the men who want to know the truth and the men who’ll do anything to hide it. Spacey is beyond cool in the film; he is the embodiment of the word and concept more than in anything else he’s done. His commitment is matched by the rest of the cast, too. When the movie bowed in 1997, Crowe was the “discovery” for U.S. audiences; aside from The Quick and the Dead and the deeply stupid Virtuosity, he wasn’t much of a name on these shores. But Pearce was the real find. His complex performance as Ed Exley is so effortlessly convincing that he’s easy to overlook next to the higher-wattage members of the cast. Yet it’s Exley’s slow burn transformation, and the tension as he shifts from loyal but self-involved cop to good man disillusioned by the system is the film’s slow beating heart, the kind of damaged pulse that takes a story about Hollywood and makes it into something more universal. Los Angeles has always been a place where people live within fabricated identities, and it’s no coincidence that the best films about the city are all about the era when the dreams people chose to believe in started to rot from within. L.A. Confidential is a neo-noir that’s as slick and polished as the best studio pictures, and it’s the spiritual successor to the long line of mythological films that hold up the City of Angels as a tarnished example of what we do to each other, and how we can take it back. “Life is good in Los Angeles,” Hudgens says over the opening credits. “It’s paradise on Earth. That’s what they tell you, anyway. Because they’re selling an image. They’re selling it through movies, radio, and television.” It’s the perfect irony that Hanson’s film cops to the medium’s inherent dishonesty and winds up selling one of the truest and best films of the decade. In short: Everything works flawlessly.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
L.A. Confidential / Daniel Carlson
Pajiba Blockbusters | March 4, 2008 | Comments ()