When the body of a young woman is found along an L.A. street, her body bisected and lacking a single ounce of blood, Detective Tommy Spellacy (Robert Duvall) instantly focuses on her "professional" status and thinks of his old boss, Irish mobster Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning). After all, the calculating crook/pimp turned semi-legit businessman had a thing for fresh faces and Tom used to run prostitution money for him back in the day. To make matters even more complicated, Amsterdam works closely with Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro), an important priest in the local diocese and Tom's baby brother.
Much of the Church's real estate dealings are wrapped up in Des and Jack's backroom backslapping. As he collects clues, it becomes clear to the veteran lawman that Amsterdam had something to do with the girl's death. But he knows it will be impossible to implicate the scoundrel and not bring down his sibling. Similarly, Desmond recognizes that he's fallen away from the service of God and into a web of deceit and lies, and such a crisis of faith is pulling him apart. Unfortunately, both brothers seem fated to a final, fractious confrontation, where loyalties are tested and True Confessions become meaningless in a world overloaded with graft and guilt.
Just call it the anti-noir. Unlike its far more famous cinematic brethren, 1981's True Confessions is hard-boiled detective fiction as lazy, Southern California calm. It's a movie with many disturbing elements bubbling right underneath the surface, but decides to keep many of those mysteries dormant, dead, or just plain buried. Offering two stellar performances by Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, this is a film about vendettas and vice, the lure of power and the arbitrary manner in which is it wielded. Some will see the references to the notorious Black Dahlia crime (here referred to as the "Virgin Tramp" murder) and wonder why novelist John Gregory Dunne (who also wrote the script along with wife Joan Didion) decided to use such an obvious lynchpin for his narrative.
Since he's not out to solve the case, the allusion appears to be merely symbolic—perhaps to illustrate the dualistic dynamic between equally corrupt brothers Thomas and Desmond Spellacy. Tommy, the cop, is the more outwardly dishonest. He was once a bagman for the rotten racketeer Jack Amsterdam and now spends his days living down his crooked past. Desmond is a Monsignor in the local Catholic diocese, more valuable to the Cardinal for his business acumen than his ability to save souls. Though his purpose is clearly distorted, it's the company he keeps that sullies his basic decency.
Thus we have the perfect setting for some standard cinematic redemption. Tommy will find a way of pinning the gruesome murder on Amsterdam, and Des will rediscover his vocation and abandon the wheeling and dealing except True Confessions doesn't want to make it that easy. Like any story wrapped around religion, salvation comes at a price and, with all the dead bodies floating around, as well as the rumors and innuendos of even more disturbing crimes, Dunne is desperate to drive this point home. The sin of late '40s L.A. is definitely seeping into every aspect of the Spellacys' world and director Ulu Grosbard is out to illustrate this in his own unique, atypical manner.
Noted for his major Broadway successes (The Investigation, American Buffalo) and sporadic Hollywood output (The Subject was Roses, Straight Time), the Belgian auteur wants to peel away the forced mystery surrounding the standard thriller and turn the tide on its potboiler particulars. In Tinseltown's golden era, this film would be steeped in dark shadows, deflected light, and a thick ambient fog of human liability. True Confessions, on the other hand, is bathed in an error-exposing luster. Even in scenes where darkness would heighten the horror, Grosbard keeps the ever-present California sun center stage.
This is specifically true in one of the movie's more devastating moments. Tommy has traced the victim's last days to a fly-by-night porno outfit functioning in an abandoned barracks in El Segundo. Traveling to the location midday, he wanders into a dimly lit makeshift studio. Instead of bringing out the flashlight and surveying the scene, he immediately goes for the canvases covering the windows. As each drape is ripped from the walls, more and more of the room is visible. Sure enough, Tommy finds what he is looking for—a mattress soaked in blood and a trail of gore leading to the bathroom equivalent of an abattoir. It's the one and only time that Grosbard and Dunne allows us to see the ugly underneath.
Even when the "Virgin Tramp" is discovered, split in two, her body separated along different sections of a vacant lot, we are kept at a distance. The director's camera only picks up part of the scene, eager instead to focus on the interplay between cops and coroners, ambulance attendants, and muckraking press. It's the same during the autopsy. All we see is a single shot of a naked, pale white torso. Indeed, everything about True Confessions is misdirection and insinuation. The first-act death of a priest is really nothing more than an expositional red herring. A power play among Church administrators over the ousting of a longtime Monsignor named Seamus is another narrative non-event.
In order to make this work, Grosbard needs actors who understand the value in internalized emotion and subtle character suggestion, and the casting in this film is first rate. Robert Duvall's Tommy always recognizes his own bad temper, but he's much more frightening in his static, slow-burn mode. He's the catalyst for all that will happen, and the actor does a terrific job of balancing interior and exterior importance. As for De Niro, he has the far more difficult part. Desmond is many things—priest, businessman, apologist, confidant, brother, son—and he constantly carries all of them around in a presence of non-volatility and calm. It must have been difficult for De Niro to be so mousy and controlled. Granted, he is a multi-faceted actor, quite capable of playing anything. But here, he's supposed to be a man drowning in his own despair, eager to be free from the false life he's leading.
True Confessions main flaw is that we never see clearly the connection between Tommy's detecting and Desmond's deliverance. It is apparent that the two are interconnected in ways beyond family, but the subsurface strategy to the storytelling leaves many of the mechanisms unexplored. Purposefully paced to let every restrained reaction and sudden emotional explosion sink in, it is both devastating drama and half-hearted whodunit. In the end, we come to care about neither and, oddly enough, don't really mind at all.