Historical Circuit: True Confessions (***)

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True ConfessionsOne of the more under appreciated films of the eighties, True Confessions earned strong reviews upon being released, but sadly never really found an audience, never really did well at the box office and somewhat sadly slipped out of theaters before audiences had a chance to discover the movie. One would think the pairing of Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro would draw audiences in as the pair were at the height of their careers, De Niro fresh from an Oscar winning performance in Raging Bull (1980) and Duvall having just been declared America’s greatest actor by the New York Times.

The film is a classic film noir, beginning in present day (circa 1981) where an old man, Tom (Duvall) is driving through the desert, his destination an old church where his brother, Des (De Niro) is the priest. They greet one another with genuine fondness and then begin to discuss the crime that in ruining Des’s aspirations within the church served to bring them closer together in every way.
We move back to the forties, where Tom is a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department and his brother Des is a fast rising priest within the Catholic Church, often turning a blind eye to the political goings on. When a young woman is literally cut in half, her body left to rot, Tom begins connecting the dots of the crime and all arrows point to the Church. Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning) is a crooked businessman who donates a great deal of money to the church, who in turn look the other way on his criminal activities. Knowing that his brother is connected, or at the very least has knowledge of the crime, Tom targets Amsterdam, recognizing his brother may be ruined. Obsessed with the law, with upholding the law, Tom barges through the case indeed taking Amsterdam down, but in the process, destroys his brother’s career.

Robert Duvall had just earned his first Academy Award nomination for his superb performance in The Great Santini (1980), and out of supporting roles, was now a leading man, though an unconventional one. He lacked the leading men good looks of most actors, but in terms of acting there was no one better on screen at this point in film history. His performance as Tom is rich and complicated, a hot tempered cop who is painfully aware his temper is his greatest enemy, but sometimes simply cannot help himself from lashing out. There is a sequence in a posh restaurant where Tom bullies his in and humiliates Amsterdam in front of his friends and members of the church. It is however his very relentlessness that allows him to solve the crime. Duvall gives a fiery performance as Tom, one of the best of his career, and without question should have been a Best Actor nominee.
De Niro’s performance is the most muted of his career. As the priest, methodical in everything he does, he moves through life with a purpose, every move a necessity, including the tying of his shoes. He feels he is ding nothing wrong in saying nothing about the killing, because by saying nothing, he is not doing anything wrong.  An underrated gem?
Perhaps audiences expected fireworks between the pair, but instead what we get is a realistic brother relationship, with each actor portraying the reality of the situation, never seeking to one up or grandstand the other as Pacino would do with De Niro in the vastly over appreciated mess they call Heat (1995). We believe they are brothers, we believe they are in conflict, and we believe they genuinely love one another and by the end as old men they have forgiven one another. In exposing Des and the church, as Des tells Tom, “You were my salvation.” There is something warm and real between the two of them, something so natural, something that is absolutely real and authentic. Grosbard, who directed far too few films, does his finest work with this one. Everything works about the film, though in honesty it seems at times muted. There’s a lot going within the Duvall character, a storm about to blow, but rather than hinging the entire film on that single performance Grosbard allowed the supporting characters to shine in small, vital roles. He captures the period authentically, and the musical score is lovely.

Oscar should have found Duvall for Best Actor and certainly De Niro for Best Supporting Actor. One of the forgotten great films of the eighties, and worth a look.