A review I am embarrasingly posting six months late … because Grad School.
LA Confidential is the rarest of neo-noirs, a film aware of and capable of rekindling not simply the intricacy of film noir but its intimacy. By an astonishing margin, director Curtis Hanson’s best film, it’s also the strangest of birds, a true anomaly, the kind of film extinct twenty years later: a genuinely great mid-tier major studio film, not a maxi-budgeted blockbuster nor an indie darling nor an insufferably choked prestige pic but an honest-to-god mature studio film that thrives not simply on the currency of its ideas but the inimitability of its craft. LA Confidential is a muscular film, all muscle and sinew, but it isn’t macho. This story of men, both trigger-happy and frequently confused about which triggers they are firing, is remarkably attuned to the way various men find their personal idioms of masculinity incapable of fulfilling the requirements of the cutthroat world around them, a world that is too polyphonic, too multifaceted, too complex for any personal masculine script to truly master.
As with any great classical Hollywood picture, which LA Confidential is most certainly a kindred spirit of, Hanson’s film thrives on the dialectical tension between a shoe-shined, slick narrative that is both a receptacle for and bulwark against the murmurs of unspoken desire beneath, the mutually-shared anomalies of the human condition which the film all but admits it cannot dwell on. Not because these desires and emotions aren’t worth analyzing but because part of their value is the push-pull between them and the surface narratives, the social pressures, the daily routines which ritualistically govern life and which often do their damnedest to put a latch on alternate expressions of humanity and ulterior desires which exist outside the normative spectrum of social expression.
Which is to say: LA Confidential is both extremely adept at pitting men against each and dissecting the fragility of their various game(s) and the rulesets which pit them against each other, and equally adroit at exposing the conscious and unconscious conundrums of expression which keep them from admitting, usually to others but often even to themselves, what they really feel, and why they feel it. These whispers of character must remain interiorized, even secluded, in the film not because the film is unaware of their existence, but because it is deeply attuned to the conundrum that it cannot easily set loose the untold psychic needs which society tramps down upon on a daily basis.
Specifically, humming beneath this relatively by-the-book, entertaining but merely competent story of police corruption are murmurs of threatened masculinity located in three men who seem eternally ready to be cracked. Ultimately LA Confidential is an almost allegorical construction, a film that tries to figure out the venn-overlap between Guy Pearce’s effete, by-the-books competency, Kevin Spacey’s smirking, supercilious superiority, and Russell Crowe’s brutish, bullish physicality. Each of these men finds themselves drawn into a plot in LA in the ‘50s, the specifics of which are irrelevant here, except to say that they increasingly spiral outward to implicate the entire city, as these things are wont to do. But the real link between these men is also the animating principle of the entire story, as well as the true test of the film’s mettle, its real thematic case to make. These are all men who compete for competency through different idioms of masculinity showing off and showboating. Only each of them, in different ways, finds that their archetypal demeanors, their self-consciously iconographic demeanors, may bend to a system that plays them all and feeds them various male-nesses that, for fear of rendering themselves vulnerable in public or private company, must refuse to consider the genuine intellectual, ethical, or emotional friendship of other men around them, as well as the skills the others possess. Doing so would emit rays of doubt about the supremacy of their own façade. In other words, each character is a dueling projection: a sturdily classical Warner Bros. B-picture type and an exploration, if not a critique, of those same types, and more importantly of men who project self-consciously iconographic exteriors for fear of admitting how easily interruptible those social codes actually are.
Each character, thus, seems terrified not so much to discover the answer to the story’s comparatively superficial mystery, but to uncover a more unsettling truth: that their male vernacular can’t work alone, maybe can’t work at all. These highly functional men aren’t merely dysfunctional, the sort of “revelation” many lesser films would aspire to. Instead, they’re ultimately functionary, not failures who paper over insecurities with typographical images of maleness but successes who, because they can embody various types, become worker-bees in a system that thrives off of their unquestioned sublimation to those types. They have different attitudes toward doling out violence, but they all violently sublimate any other selves to the machismo of their position.
I’d be stealing from critic Nick Davis to read any homoerotic subtext into Spacey’s character, although I concur that, once the argument is intimated, it’s almost impossible to avoid. But I was equally drawn to the interplay between Pearce’s character Exley and Crowe’s Bud White, who have antithetical views of crime-stopping that they come to see are also united in their shared inability to escape certain masculine confines, a link which leads to an eventual friendship that the film insinuates could be more in another world. White is screwing a celebrity-styled prostitute played by Kim Basinger (easily the weakest link in the cast, despite winning the sole Oscar for the film), and when Exley has sex with her, she notes “Fucking me and fucking Bud aren’t the same thing, you know”. This isn’t to suggest that the two men are gay, but in fact to correct the presumption that queerness should be reduced to a question of sexual activity in the traditional sense. The double-meaning of “fuck” exposes, instead, how power, passion, desire, romance, companionship, and competition all socially stew in a hot-box of repressed emotion that many men know not how to explore, let alone express. If the film has any queer component, then Basinger’s “You’d screw yourself to get ahead” to Exley plays with queerness to the point where attraction and hatred, self and other, are inimitably intertwined.
But, more than any particular issue of queerness, the film explores the limits of masculine constructions that might not even want to allow the possibility of seeing other men as genuine friends, displacing others to the safe distance of accidental partner. Each man tests the other in initially unexpected ways, calling out their miscommunications as emissaries of interpersonal conflict, a battleground where all assumptions are questioned by the sheer existence of other people, by the projective gazes of people who seek to actualize their social type through the recognizing eyes of others, but in doing so call on the agency of that other to accept and recognize one’s projective fantasy of self-construction. Although it’s hardly Persona, LA Confidential is tragically literate in both the compromises of collectivity and the necessity of it, in the dialectics of a self that pines to be defined only in its own terms but is necessarily contoured by and imagined through its intersection with others. Ultimately, the film exposes how men are stricken by the illusion of individualist self-fashioning and refuse to admit the porousness of their interpersonal, permeable selves outside of the masculine-approved rhetorics of in-fighting and showboating, assuming that they are merely reflecting their selves onto others rather than being shaped by the interaction.
I must confess that I do not know what kind of relationship the men of this film exhibit, but I do admire the film’s will to question that relationship. And to question masculinity without resorting to the self-serving brooding, poetic loner-skulker mythology that has so often colonized films about masculinity and reoriented them toward more superficial modes of auto-critique. These themes are more implicit here, more subcutaneous, unable to truly exteriorize beyond a handful of scenes where even the least masculine of the three, Exley, bullies three African-American men by playing on the masculine vernacular that every single male in the film recognizes, even if they try to hide it. But that’s instrumental to the film’s vision of sublimated interiors ruthlessly scrapped into plots which do not simply animate conflict – as in most films – but which defile and mask and obstruct deeper conflicts as well.
Even if none of the aforementioned arguments means anything to you, I also conclude with admiration for the film’s craft, sure-handed and elegant and brutal and vicious in equal measure, even if it lacks the bristling affective charge of the gloriously undisciplined Black Dahlia, not a great film, but an excitingly imprecise clusterfuck of strange and deliberate outre impulses battling for supremacy in Brian De Palma’s batty mind. And admiration, as well, for Kevin Spacey’s astonishingly textured turn as the most complex of the three protagonists, given the least ostentatious role. It’s almost certainly the most genuine performance he’s ever given, perhaps the only one not belabored by his usual sense of self-superiority. Or, more to the point, the only one which shades his usually smug actorly persona with an aura of self-conscious performance that feels less like a post-modern writer’s hip attempt at social commentary (American Beauty) or a self-consciously cunning gambit (Usual Suspects) than a genuinely melancholic reflection on men who erect walls and shields to protect themselves from how brittle they are, and how fragile the system around them might be if only they knew how to push in the right ways.