A worldly ambitious monsignor clashes with his older brother, a cynical L.A.homicide detective investigates the brutal murder of a young prostitute.
The teaming of Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall is the best thing about 'True Confessions,' Ulu Grosbard's understated adaptation of the John Gregory Dunne novel about two brothers - one a cop with the LAPD, the other a priest at the LA archdiocese - caught up in the notorious Black Dahlia murder case in the late 1940s. The two heavyweight actors go toe to toe in the ring, crafting finely etched, nuanced portrayals that nicely resonate, yet never do they try to upstage each other or resort to shameless scene-stealing tricks. Grosbard's quiet, low-key approach forces the duo to exercise admirable restraint, and though at times the methodical pacing stalls the narrative and tests viewer patience, 'True Confessions' nevertheless casts a delicate spell as it paints two fascinating character portraits and celebrates the unbreakable bond of brotherhood.
Both Father Desmond Spellacy (De Niro) and Detective Tom Spellacy (Duvall) have checkered pasts and abuse the authority of their present positions. Tom used to be a "bagman" for corrupt developer Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning) when he ran a prostitution ring, and now Des deals with the pompous Amsterdam, who helps the church fund community building projects that also conveniently pad his personal coffers. As a result of this shady association, Des becomes a celebrated figure who, within the confines of the priesthood, lives a lush, privileged life, much to the chagrin of his bitter and more devout colleague, Seamus Fargo (Burgess Meredith), who disapproves of Des's insatiable ambition, corporate mindset, and blatant fawning over the aged Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack), who views the brown-nosing Des as his successor. For the celibate Des, power supplants any carnal desires, and it's a drug he can't live without.
Older brother Tom lacks Des's glamorous aura and elevated stature, but fights the good fight, often bending the law in the name of justice. When a young prostitute with dreams of Hollywood stardom and Catholic connections is found brutally murdered, the pugnacious Tom takes the case, and his investigation soon leads him to Amsterdam and, tangentially, to Des, testing the strength of their close yet reserved relationship and forcing both men to reflect on their questionable morality and integrity.
A host of thought-provoking themes swirl around 'True Confessions,' which bills itself as a murder mystery, but is really a human tale of reflection, repentance, and rebirth. The Black Dahlia incident - renamed the case of the "Virgin Tramp" here - merely acts as a catalyst for the examination of deeper personal issues, resentments, and regrets. Of course, what would a Catholic-themed movie be without guilt, and the manner in which all the characters, from the leads all the way down to bit players, deal with this torturous emotion ultimately becomes the drama's crux.
An accomplished stage director, Grosbard only directed seven films over a 30-year period, specializing in intimate character studies, and 'True Confessions' is right up that alley, filled with lingering reaction shots, significant stares, and weighty moments of contemplation that nicely shade this story of depraved individuals wading through the choppy waters of life. Grosbard seems to relish these beats, but the indulgence often causes the pacing to flag, and some unnecessary rambling in the Dunne-Joan Didion script diminishes the movie's impact. Yet while 'True Confessions' doesn't provide the kind of explosive payoff we might expect from this type of film, it still makes an impression, thanks largely to the marvelous work of De Niro and Duvall.
'True Confessions' was De Niro's first film after his Oscar-winning turn as prizefighter Jake La Motta in 'Raging Bull,' and he fully embraces the change-of-pace role. Though it's initially hard to accept the streetwise, tough-monkey De Niro as a soft-spoken, reserved priest, it's fascinating to watch how he attacks the part, and his exchanges with the more flamboyant but equally restrained Duvall crackle with the kind of simmering intensity only truly committed actors can bring to a scene. At times, their interplay recalls the fraternal relationship between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront,' and while they don't share a scene that comes close to replicating what transpired between Charlie and Terry Malloy in the back seat of a taxicab, De Niro and Duvall prove their mettle during a masterfully played tête-á-tête in a diner and heartrending epilogue in a dusty desert chapel.
'True Confessions' could use an injection of Martin Scorsese energy to counteract its prevailing languor and enhance its visual presence, but there's a quiet beauty to Grosbard's presentation that's also effective. If you have the patience, this sensitive portrait of brotherhood wrapped up in a tale of murder, corruption, repentance, guilt, revenge, power, ego, and ambition can yield great rewards, but to truly savor the performances and absorb the subtleties of this nuanced work, a second viewing is required.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'True Confessions' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Kino's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'True Confessions' looks a bit faded, but possesses good contrast and clarity. A few errant nicks dot the source material, but only eagle eyes can spot them, and a natural grain structure lends the picture a warm, film-like feel. A muted color palette reflects both the grime of 1940s Los Angeles and unsavory aspects of the various characters, but blacks are fairly deep, whites are solid, and fleshtones are true. Close-ups highlight fine facial features well, and shadow and background details show up nicely. No banding, pixelation, or noise afflicts the image, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. This transfer certainly won't knock anyone's socks off, but it's a perfectly acceptable rendering of a 33-year-old film.
Aside from a few heated confrontations, 'True Confessions' is a quiet film, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track doesn't complement it very well. Though accents like the crunching of footsteps against gritty pavement come across cleanly, more delicate nuances don't have much presence. No noticeable stereo separation across the front channels could be detected, which in turn limits the scope of the soundscape. The mumbled dialogue is also often difficult to comprehend - a couple of times I was tempted to turn on the subtitles, but after a few rewinds I was able to make out what was said - and not much fidelity enhances the music score. On the plus side, there's no distortion to speak of, and the track is free of any hiss, pops, or crackles. 'True Confessions' doesn't require a robust track and it doesn't get one. What's here is serviceable, nothing more.
The only extra included is a two-minute theatrical trailer that hypes the pairing of De Niro and Duvall, and highlights the murder mystery angle.
The searing, understated performances of Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall elevate 'True Confessions,' but even these two legendary actors struggle to overcome the malaise that afflicts the material. Many affecting moments distinguish this bleak tale of corruption, murder, regret, and the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood, but Ulu Grosbard's sterile direction doesn't always maximize their impact. Kino's Blu-ray presentation features good-quality video and audio transfers, but, as usual, almost zero supplements. Still, fans of De Niro and Duvall will surely want to add this title to their collection. For the rest of us, 'True Confessions' is definitely worth a look, and repeat viewings will certainly yield greater insight and emotional rewards.