If you care about character and plotting, if you’re one of those people who’s complained that movies don’t have a compelling story anymore, if you’ve ever mourned the demise of adeptly concise filmmaking technique at the hands of directors interested in “look at me” stylistic spectacles, then get off your ass and go see L.A. Confidential, a crime drama that doesn’t prettify the crime or back off from the drama. If the critics overrate this one, it’s only because it looks so damned good in contrast to the rest of what’s out there.
The motley ensemble of James Cromwell (Babe), Russell Crowe (The Quick and the Dead), Guy Pearce (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) are the cops anchoring this carefully plotted story of how ideals and idealism work in the real world. Pearce is Ed Exley, a smart young cop who’s trying to live up to the legacy of his famously hard-assed father but refuses to engage in the rule-bending and back-breaking that the L.A.P.D. considers an important part of its duty. Crowe is Bud White, a veteran hard-ass who takes a personal interest in the unfolding mystery when his partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) is gunned down in a massacre at a coffee shop called the Nite Owl. Spacey is an odd bird named Jack Vincennes, a suave detective who’s in cahoots with the editor (Danny DeVito) of a sleazy city tabloid called Hush-Hush and who’s technical consultant for a TV cop show called Badge of Honor for good press and a few bucks on the side. And Cromwell is homicide lieutenant Dudley Smith, the no-nonsense patriarch of this codependent family of policemen.
Kim Basinger, who’s wrecked her career as badly as anyone who ever looked like a star on the rise, makes up for lost time with her performance as the luminous Lynn Bracken, a call girl whose hairstyle is meant to evoke images of Veronica Lake. (In one of L.A. Confidential‘s seamy subplots, David Strathairn lords it over a prostitution ring featuring girls “cut” by surgeons to look like movie stars.) The nails-on-a-chalkboard DeVito is, I admit, just about perfect in a mercifully minor role.
In 1992, director Curtis Hanson helmed the enjoyably lurid The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a movie that had my shits-and-giggles seal of approval until the moment it killed off villainess Rebecca DeMornay, for whom I had been rooting. I remembered that movie for the morbid efficiency with which it assaulted the domestic ideal, and for its success in creating a vengeful nemesis who had a human motivation for her dirty deeds. It may be a stretch to compare these two films, but L.A. Confidential is similarly interested in the lives of people who do bad things.
The story tracks the trajectories of two main characters — Exley and White — to the point where they intersect and beyond. The unlikeable White grows on us as he’s shown to be driven by some very human demons. And the staid Exley pulls us into his moral dilemma as he learns that it may be impossible to hold fast to one’s ideals and still work within a corrupt system. Both performances are top-drawer, and Crowe’s is probably one of the best this year. Spacey’s is the only real sense of humor, and he’s a welcome presence who doesn’t get as much screen time as you might expect. Cromwell, meanwhile, is the very embodiment of steely pragmatism.
If you’ve read James Ellroy, you may wonder how his crazy prose style translates to a screenplay. The answer is pretty damn well. The cops’ pervasive racism has been mostly elided, as have the more distasteful details of how L.A. indulged itself back in the day (sidelong references to pedophilia and bestiality). But the movie’s dialogue is faithful to the book in spirit and sometimes in detail. The intricacies of the novel have been trimmed down substantially but smartly by screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Hanson. For viewers, the bottom line is that the entire cast of characters may well be expendable, which adds urgency to the plentiful twists and turns. Unlike all too many thrillers du jour, this one’s convolutions are absorbing rather than confounding, and lead to dramatic payoffs.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Michael Mann’s very different vision of Los Angeles for 1995’s Heat, photographs L.A. Confidential in a restrained style that emphasizes character and mood while always finding the least obtrusive angle on a brawl or a murder scene. Together with Hanson, he can communicate violence through understatement (one victim is found sitting sitting up in a chair with his arms hanging over the sides and blood stains on the carpet below), through resort to the gross-out (other corpses are photographed with all the delicacy of a glossy from a crime scene), or by going completely nuts with a final, cathartic gun battle.
But what matters more than L.A. Confidential‘s style is, finally, its story — and this one is rich and disturbing and it moves like a greased pig, leaving you breathless. It’s about loyalty, morality, and — most of all — corruption. It’s about the ways that a good man compromises his integrity in order to do the right thing. It’s about deeply flawed heroes grappling with extraordinary everyday circumstances. It’s about where Los Angeles has been and maybe about where it’s going. It’s about the distance between stars, whores, and ordinary lives. And by extension, like all great films, it’s about us. Don’t miss this one.