Directed by Ulu Grosbard
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler
Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn
Based on the novel “True Confessions” by John Gregory Dunn
Hard as it is to believe, Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall have only appeared in one movie together; TRUE CONFESSIONS. “Godfather Part II” doesn’t count because they shared no scenes in that one. That fact really doesn’t have a thing to do with this review. I just threw that in because I could have sworn that DeNiro and Duvall have appeared in more movies together. And it is a shame that they didn’t do more work together. They play brothers in this movie and do an excellent job of convincing me that they are. But DeNiro and Duvall are such great actors they can easily convince me of anything.
Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert DeNiro) is an ambitious force to be reckoned with in the Los Angeles archdiocese of the 1940’s. His thirst for power is well known but as he directs it into projects beneficial and profitable to the church, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack) allows him free reign. Homicide Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall) is the older brother who is proud of his younger sibling’s position and influence but worries about the shadier people he gets involved with. In particular one Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning) a major and powerful contractor Desmond has worked closely with. But Tom’s knows Armstrong’s true nature as Tom used to work for Armstrong years ago as a bagman when Armstrong ran a prostitution ring.
When Tom and his partner (Kenneth McMillan) catch a particularly brutal murder involving a dead prostitute found cut in two in a vacant lot, their investigation leads Tom to think that Armstrong may still be involved in prostitution. Tom follows a very dirty trail that leads him to a porno movie ring and a sleazy director the murdered prostitute worked for.
In the meantime Desmond attempts to cut his ties with Armstrong which isn’t easy. Armstrong’s lawyer (Ed Flanders) warns Desmond that Armstrong is a genie who won’t be put back in the bottle. And to further complicate things, there’s some evidence that Desmond knew the murdered girl. Once Tom finds out he has some hard choices to make. Can he continue to investigate the murder without involving his brother in a scandal that may destroy his career?
TRUE CONFESSIONS isn’t your high octane action thriller. It’s a quiet exploration of a world where deals involving millions of dollars and affecting thousands of lives are made on golf courses and in dimly lit offices. The backrooms and the boardrooms are where the real rulers of Los Angeles work and the Spellacy brothers are right in the middle of a web of corruption and deceit. What I like about the movie is that the script is smart enough to not let the brothers off the hook for their past lies and indiscretions just because they’ve now found out they do have a moral center. Tom’s past as a crooked cop is continually brought up and thrown in his face and Desmond wrestles with a crisis of faith. Is he serving God or his own pride?
It’s easy to think that TRUE CONFESSIONS could be taking place at the same time the stories of “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” are playing out as it looks that good and the period detail just as authentic. But TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a character study and dramatic exploration of the corruption infecting the souls of the Spellacy brothers than a hard-boiled mystery. In fact, there’s a surprising moment where Tom confesses to his brother that he really doesn’t care if Armstrong killed the girl or not. There’s another reason he wants to see the man hang and it’s got more to do with the sins Tom helped him commit in the past than any real sense of justice that needs to be served today. And Desmond slowly comes to realize that his true worth to the church is how many dollars he saves, not souls.
Both Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall are working at the top of their respective games here. DeNiro had just won his Academy Award for “Raging Bull” and Duvall would win one a year later for “Tender Mercies.” The relationship between the two brothers is an interesting one more for what the brothers don’t say to each other when it needs to be said and only comes from their lips years later in a ending scene of such elegant redemption and sadness.
There’s plenty of solid supporting work here. I enjoyed seeing Kenneth McMillan get to play a good cop for a change. Ed Flanders as a lawyer is as dangerously polite and gentle as a razor. Burgess Meredith plays Desmond’s mentor and ironically his fate in the movie turns out to be his protégé’s as well. Look for Dan Hedaya and James Hong in small but pivotal roles.
Charles Durning has a good showcase here of his talents. Armstrong can be jovial and happy-go-lucky one minute. Then it’s as if he flips a mental switch and becomes murderously menacing. Maybe his character did kill that girl. Maybe he didn’t. But he sure has the temperament for it. And look for the scene where he dances at a wedding. My Better In The Dark co-host Tom Deja mentioned to me how impressed he was with Durning’s dancing ability in “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and I suggested he check out this movie just for that scene alone. Durning’s a big man but he seems to become totally weightless when he dances and his face is so full of sheer happiness you can’t help but grin when he does his merry little Irish jig.
So should you see TRUE CONFESSIONS? If you’re a fan of Robert DeNiro and/or Robert Duvall, yes. If you like murder mysteries set in 1940’s Los Angeles, yes. Just don’t get too involved in wanting to know who done it. TRUE CONFESSIONS is more of a why they done it and how it still affects and resonates with those involved years later.