This film is simply a noir classic.
Film noir is famously very difficult to categorize, but somehow its conventions and tropes have percolated down the public consciousness in such a way that they are almost immediately recognizable to those that view them. To paraphrase Justice Stewart’s famous line on pornography, I don’t know what film noir is, but I’ll know it when I see it. To me, L.A. Confidential embodies what I imagine noir to be; it hits all right notes that I’d expect of the convention, and does so in a supremely confident and masterful way. This is not just a good noir (or neo-noir) film, this is a masterful work of art in its own right, a film that demonstrates an impressive grasp of narrative, pacing and dialogue. This is a film that really nails the craft of filmmaking.
L.A. Confidential ticks all the right boxes for a noir crime thriller. We have a trio of protagonists – the grim, violent Bud White (Russell Crowe) with a penchant for going to extreme lengths to protect vulnerable women, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the cerebral, by-the-books straight-A star of the academy, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a well-connected and cynical veteran of the narcotics department who initially appears more interested in leveraging his position to receive kickbacks from tabloid writers than to pursue justice. Each has a different relationship with the institutional authority – the LAPD – to which they belong: White is the tough used by the commissioner to extract confessions from criminals through violence, Exley firmly believes in the rule of law and the mission of the police force, and Vincennes, of course, is the typical corrupt cop who distorts the process of justice to his own ends. But each of them finds out in his own way that the institution to which they belong hides a moral rot below its surface, and they must attempt to negotiate their differences in order to pierce the veil of mystery and apprehend the institution’s true nature.
Of the three protagonists, Bud White is perhaps the most typically hard-boiled, a man who wallows in existential bitterness underneath his tough exterior, whose only recourse to the faithlessness and hypocrisy of society around him is violence. There is also a kind of femme fatale character in the form of Lynn Bracken, in whose charms White is ensnared, who acts as a catalyst to his vulnerability, but who also serves as a point of contention between Exley and White, in the typical femme fatale fashion. Los Angeles is prominently featured, of course; its sunny weather and freewheeling lifestyle of glamor is often used as an ironic theater that contrasts with the falsity and corruption of society, a common theme in noir. This is a film that liberally applies noir tropes in a way that is not particularly innovative, but instead uses them as tools and narrative aids to set certain moods, tones and expectations for the viewing audience in the process of telling a riveting story.
And it does so in expert fashion. Telling the parallel character arcs of three protagonists in one two-hour package in a way that is compelling and complete is no mean feat, but L.A. Confidential manages it quite expertly. Its use of snappy, curt dialogue complements its noir sensibility, and what is said usually has a subtext that unpacks in relation to the other parts of the film. The way the narrative unfolds resembles a finely-crafted puzzle box that reveals successive layers of complexity as you continue watching and unpacking it. The pacing is quick but never too fast, and the film never devolves into bloated exposition, trusting its audience to follow its twists and turns, never pandering to the lowest common denominator. That kind of trust elevates the film into a reciprocal experience because the viewer derives pleasure and satisfaction from the process of unpacking and understanding the film just by watching it attentively. That is a supremely rewarding feeling, and it is hard to pitch a film’s narrative at a level that makes it just hard enough to get that reward response, but not too hard that its complexity is lost to most viewers in its intended demographic profile.
This is quite a masterfully made film. It is made in the best tradition of noir, using its tropes in a way that populates the tone and mood of the film, and drawing on their underlying cultural permeation to build the groundwork for the viewing experience of the audience. While not groundbreaking in its use of comforting trope conventions, it nonetheless tells a compelling story by layering in a dense but not impenetrable plot. In doing so, it also manages to include a fair bit of compelling character growth into the mix. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m impressed at how the film packs so much into the confined space of two hours, and yet comes across feeling streamlined and well-paced. There is not an ounce of expository fat – and the film really puts its trust into the competence (and genre-savviness) of its audience. The result is a well-told, compelling and captivating film that deserves its place in the pantheon of noir greats.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Rollo Tomasis