Thursday 24 September 2020

Movie Review: True Confessions (1981)

A neo-noir crime drama, True Confessions lines up the requisite components but misplaces all the potential.

In the early 1960s, Los Angeles police Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) visits his brother Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro) at an isolate parish in the middle of the desert. Desmond announces he is dying from a failing heart. In flashback, the brothers recall a seminal event in their relationship.

In 1947, Desmond is a powerful up-and-coming figure in the church, the right-hand man and fixer for the Cardinal (Cyril Cusack). The church has a long-standing partnership with slimy businessman Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), whose construction company benefits from building religious facilities for the expanding city. In his less respectable early days Jack financed a whorehouse managed by Brenda (Rose Gregorio). Now his finances are wobbling, and Desmond is eager to cut ties with Amsterdam to clean-up the church's image.

Meanwhile, Tom is building a reputation as a dogged detective working with his more seasoned partner Detective Frank Crotty (Kenneth McMillan). Tom helps Desmond cover up any scandal from the death of a reverend at Brenda's brothel. The detectives then have to deal with the gory murder of Lois Fazenda (Missy Cleveland), her body found cut in half and drained of blood. Tom's investigation into Lois' background uncovers sordid activities dangerously close to his brother Desmond.

Despite the presence of heavyweight acting talent in the form of Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, True Confessions is a lost opportunity. The script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, adapting Dunne's book, is littered with raw material derived from the infamous Black Dahlia case by way of Chinatown, with the added moral complexity of a religious veneer cloaking corruption. But director Ulu Grosbard opts for a talky, slow and often stumbling composition, barely coherent events unfolding through scene after scene of mumbled dialogue drowned by background noise.

Seemingly more interested in frilly and inconsequential style points, at no point does Grosbard come close to achieving momentum or emotional resonance, and the misdeeds supposedly motivating murder are a muddled mess. The reverend's death at the brothel and later the demise of another secondary character are lost investments. A sub-quest involving honest monsignor Fargo (Burgess Meredith) consumes inordinate time. The business dealings between the Cardinal and Jack are explained at sketch level, and the supposedly perilous connections between the very dead Lois, Jack and Desmond are treated with tangential incompetence, robbing the film of any impact.

True Confessions is left with an elegant recreation of 1940s Los Angeles, and the two Roberts delivering understated but uneven performances. De Niro is better served by the Monsignor character, while Duvall's bull-in-a-china-shop antics are another example of a script going to a place because other scripts went there, and not because it makes any sense.

Duvall and De Niro do share thoughtful scenes together, but unfortunately their pregnant pauses best serve to expose the lack of coherent substance.

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