There comes a moment for each of the three detectives caught up in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, right after the Night Owl case is first “solved,” where they all reveal their dependence on the L.A.P.D. for their own sense of security and identity before discovering just how much that institution betrayed and turned those psychological comforts against them. Despite being at each other’s throats through most of the film, Ed Exley and Bud White are remarkably similar in that they both allowed a higher authority (ironically, the same one that already failed their parents at a young age) to define for them different paths to “manhood” in the absence of father figures. Their struggle is an oedipal one; coming to terms with their uncertain masculinity and eventually shattering their dependence on a paternal system that was much less than the vaguely-defined ideals they thought only it could mold them into.
Contrasting those two is Jack Vincennes, whose relationship to the police force right from the start is less high-minded. He can’t even recall his motivation for joining in the first place except as a means to use that association for easy money and a brush with Hollywood glamour. Yet when he, against his better judgment, subtly manipulates a young man desperate for both knowing full well it will destroy the kid’s life, an unexpected guilt starts to break down his own confident and even narcissistic self-image. This leads him to discover his mark’s even worse fate in my favorite shot in the film and one of my favorite moments in Kevin Spacey’s career:
It’s a such poignant moment because while we don’t know exactly why this stirs a newfound sense of moral determination in Jack, we know for certain that this man has found his soul after years of selling it off. It won’t be long before Bud and Ed face down their own failures and insecurities, but while those men very nearly break in response to them, Jack’s revelation seems to do the opposite.
This is why L.A. Confidential is such a thrilling experience, able to maintain a great deal of tension despite (I suspect) most people being able to “figure out” its central mystery before any of the main characters do by virtue of being able to see how all three detectives’ incomplete paths to the truth tie together: each new development doesn’t matter as much as what it means to these sharply distinct and flawlessly performed characters and how they change in response to it.
Remember to visit The Film Experience tonight at 9:00 PM for more favorite shots from this outstanding movie!