by Josie Kafka
Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential is a movie that does everything exactly right, and somehow manages to make that seem perfect rather than annoying. From the characterization to the structure, from the post-WWII milieu to the fabulous clothes with fabulous actors in them—if I were a moviemaker, I’d be jealous. As just a lowly moviegoer, I’m very impressed.
The film is based on James Ellroy’s eponymous novel, the third in his LA Quartet, which focuses on tortured men dealing with their tortured reactions to women being tortured and killed. I went through an Ellroy phase a few years back, and his LA Quartet is a great series to start if you’re interested in recent noir literature that is, in Laura Miller’s phrase, “so hard-boiled you could chip a tooth on it.”
But prior knowledge of Ellroy’s own dark past or famous LA murders like the Black Dahlia aren’t necessary to understand and enjoy LA Confidential, which does a great job of setting up the context (an organized-crime power vacuum in the wake of Mickey Cohen’s incarceration and the LAPD's notorious corruption), the stakes, and the major players.
Those players are a…is quadfecta a word?...of excellent actors: Russell Crowe as apparent idiot Bud White, who is smarter than even he realizes; Kevin Spacey as the smarmy, grasping Jack Vincennes; Guy Pearce as Ed Exley, the kind of guy who confuses careerism with honor; and James Cromwell as the lieutenant who knows all the angles and how to play them.
Each man is corrupt in his own way. Even Bud White prioritizes revenge against wife-beaters over the slow wheels of the law (although it’s hard to think of that as a bad thing). It takes a series of murders to force each to realize where he draws the line and how much he’s willing to risk in order to pursue a higher ideal like fairness, justice, and nobility—or their opposites.
White, Vincennes, and Exley spend the first half of the film hating each other and reacting to situations; the second half of the film shows them coming together in a brilliantly awkward buddy-cop trio that is punctuated by great supporting performances by Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake lookalike, Danny DeVito as a smarmy tabloid reporter, and even Ron Rifkin (Sloane from Alias) as a real-life district attorney Ellis Loew.
The milieu is just as compelling: LA in the 1950s was a hotbed of racial unrest, governmental corruption, sleazy show-biz types, and sleazier cops. This is a beautiful film to look at if period cars and period clothes make you happy, but it’s also a subtle indictment of the way that any power structure can easily become a tool of the strong rather than the just. LA Confidential gives the impression that we’re getting just one story out of a thousand, a tiny glimpse of a gigantic, labyrinthine world in which nobody is innocent and everyone is scheming.
I don’t want to say much more than that, in case you’re one of the few people who would want to watch this film but have not done so yet. (In which case all I can say is, “Why on earth not?”) But I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to mention that this movie, like The Usual Suspects, is an ode to the bromance—the complicated, shifting comradeships that form between men in high-pressure situations, especially when there aren’t enough women to go around. It’s also a meditation on the difference between reality and appearance, from the high-priced escorts “cut” to look like movie stars to the role the media play in crafting a palatable hero narrative that almost always focuses on the wrong hero. And it is an absolute pleasure to watch.
Four out of four Rollo Tamasis.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)