Having finished HBO’s terrific mini-series True Detective, I was inspired to revisit 1981’s True Confessions, one of that decade’s finest films with strikingly similar themes and techniques.
Each drama features a pair of male protagonists. In True Detective, it’s Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives embroiled in a particularly vicious case involving a serial killer preying on prostitutes and children in Louisiana. In True Confessions, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall are brothers (the former, a priest; the latter, a detective) involved in the brutal murder of a Los Angeles hooker.
Both features use chronological flashbacks, as characters age 20 years or more over the course of the narrative. True Confessions begins and ends with a meeting of the two brothers many years after the film’s central events. True Detective employs a more complicated process, flashing back and forth over a period of years in nearly every episode.
Besides dealing with grisly crimes, both stories involve complex themes of political and religious corruption. Though True Detective has time to develop very tangled love/sexual relationships, True Confessions manages to incorporate an important subtext about human as well as divine love.
Raw, violent, graphic and uncompromising, True Detective is sophisticated and intelligent, an example of the TV mini-series at its best. The acting, direction and production values are all first-rate. If you haven’t seen it, you should — with a caveat: It can be quite disturbing.
True Confessions, on the other hand, is far more subdued and restrained. The graphic elements are minimal but effective, action sequences practically non-existent. Yet the film has a driving intensity, fueled in equal part by Duvall and De Niro at the top of their form. Equally noteworthy is the script by John Gregory Dunne and his wife Joan Didion, based on Dunne’s earlier novel, which in turn was inspired by the real-life case of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles. Please don’t confuse this film with Brian DePalma’s vapid Black Dahlia (2006).
Robert De Niro plays a prominent figure in Los Angeles Catholic hierarchy, a monsignor torn between the politics of his position and his conscience as a man of God. His life and his office seem to be devolving into one compromise after another, particularly when he’s forced to suck up to a corrupt Catholic businessman. What’s never questioned, however, is his priestly faith.
As his worldlier brother, Robert Duvall is less patient and more irate with all levels of bureaucratic corruption. When his investigation into a heinous crime leads him to the web of the wealthy and prominent, he’s eager to pounce. Less pious and more realistic (or so he would think) than his sibling, the cop is nonetheless forced to reappraise the situation when his brother may be one of the collateral victims. Truth, it seems, might take on a different face inside and outside the confessional.
Both features are true winners. You’ve probably heard of, if not already seen, True Detective. Don’t overlook True Confessions.