I always loved their names. To me, they matched each character and the actor playing him to perfection — maybe too well. This may have been a case in which the writer’s impulse to put the themes right there on the page went a little too far, distorting human characters into distinct threads in a design. The names even fit their appearances. Bud White, played by Russell Crowe with a buzzcut and a merciless glare, patrolling in plainclothes and ignoring the niceties. Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey with blasé cool in fancy suits, courting publicity through television and gossip magazines. Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce with pompous rectitude and big glasses, going by the book and profiting at the expense of his peers. All three are tried-and-true archetypes, and each is set up at the beginning of L.A. Confidential with his own scene, establishing a three-headed protagonist for this byzantine crime drama.
The script by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson (adapted from the James Ellroy novel) ultimately takes the form of a buddy film between White and Exley, with Vincennes as a somewhat peripheral figure finding his own pieces to the overall puzzle. From the start, the two cops have opposite temperaments; opposite approaches to beating suspects and planting evidence; and, we eventually learn, opposite relationships with their fathers. As if these weren’t enough, Exley antagonizes White throughout the film, bringing an emotional man to a boil more than once. The two men, and Vincennes, carry on in their established styles for a long time, working independently so that only the audience can guess that they’re uncovering different facets of the same case. Then, around the midpoint, nearly simultaneously, all three of them have crises of conscience stemming from the conspiracy at the heart of the film.
Bud White’s real given name, I’d forgotten, is Wendell. His superior, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is one of only two people in the film who ever call him that. This suggests that “Bud” is something of a front, a persona. He’s a good guy underneath. And without question, Bud White is an idealized conception of a police officer. He may be uncontrollably violent, but he also has a well-maintained moral compass that hearkens back (here’s that writerly element again) to his childhood. He hates men who abuse women because his father beat, and finally murdered, his mother. This backstory is so thoroughly mapped onto his psyche that it even comes into play during the film’s early inciting incident, the “Bloody Christmas” assault by some drunken cops on Mexican-American prisoners. White tries to break it up at first, but then a prisoner says something unprintable on a family blog about White’s mother, so he starts throwing punches too. When the matter comes under investigation, White won’t testify against his fellow officers (unlike Exley), even to mitigate his own punishment. He tortures suspects to get answers about sexual predators, and then he plants a gun on one that he just shot dead. This behavior is thuggish and vile, but the film suggests there’s a defensible morality behind it. He does what needs to be done to rescue the defenseless and solve crimes.
Ed Exley complements White beautifully, in that his behavior is ethical but his motives are sketchy. He tries to break up the unjustifiable attack on the prisoners, but he’s completely on his own. He then incurs the wrath of every other officer by breaking the code of mutual protection. Neither bribes nor brutality are acceptable to him. But the smugness with which Pearce plays the role makes the intimations of ulterior motives thoroughly believable. Exley knows which way the wind is blowing, as the Hollywood-enhanced propaganda about the L.A.P.D. comes under scrutiny. He can be the face of reform in exchange for a promotion. Thankfully, there’s complexity here, too. Exley has dedicated his life to honoring the legacy of his father, a respected cop who was murdered by an unidentified purse snatcher. The killer was never found, and Exley had to make up a name for him, “Rollo Tomassi,” to make him seem catchable in Exley’s mind. The young cop seeks power not for its own sake, but so that he can take down those criminals who would otherwise get away with it. First among them is a cop who happens to be White’s partner. Not only do the plot mechanics open up an interesting conflict between two “good guys,” but they also acclimate each man to the concept of police corruption, which will be very helpful later.
The conspiracy that Exley, White, and Vincennes finally piece together is a clanging MacGuffin, something to do with organized crime, prostitution and drugs. The salient fact is that cops and robbers are, in this case, malleable categories. Our three protagonists all learn of their complicity before it’s too late. Vincennes gets involved in blackmail, White becomes hired muscle to unknown purpose, Exley participates in a frame-up. They emerge suspicious and start exchanging notes. A celebrity lookalike sex worker named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) comes into White’s life to rekindle his heroic drive and reveal its limitations. All three men will fail in some capacity.
L.A. Confidential is a character-driven film. The director, Curtis Hanson, employs many deep-focus and split diopter shots to keep our attention on two or more characters at a time. As the story is about duplicity and the exposure of Hollywood-style fantasy, many shots also employ screens, reflections and noir-ish shadows. Despite a rosy ending, the film remains in some ways nettlesome. Its focus on individual characters limits the story’s scope. The film asks us to believe that a police force tainted by corruption that goes all the way to the top could be set right by two or three intrepid officers. Little room is made for fundamental, systemic flaws, despite the film’s acknowledgement of racial scapegoating and a general air of superiority among cops. It’s easy for either political viewpoint to accuse L.A. Confidential of “not going far enough,” either in defending the kind of rough treatment that allegedly gets results, or in contextualizing the evil of that treatment. Yet the movie isn’t great because it holds hardliners at bay; it’s great because it marshals its complexities into an expertly filmed drama. And it’s great, perhaps above all, because of the magic of its casting. Crowe, Pearce and Spacey (Crowe most of all) really make those names sing.