What this all means, I suspect, is that Hanson is much better at malice than virtue. He can't make the scenes with Lynn come alive because they're cream-filled with good intentions. It's the same creaminess that mars the film's ending. (The book's fade-out is vaguely similar, but far less smug.) In a way, Hanson is a victim of his own success here: He's so good at nastiness that the counterbalancing sweetness pales in comparison.
He's not always at his best on the dark side, either: A scene involving the strong-arming of the district attorney (Ron Rifkin) is poorly staged, and there are a few too many cutesy-ironic touches, like the shot of Vincennes under a movie marquee for The Bad and the Beautiful.
But Hanson understands in his bones what draws us to this netherworld: We want to know where the bodies are buried. In one particularly startling sequence, we actually find out--White crawls under a house and pulls up a rotting corpse. It's as if, in this scene, White becomes the Ulysses of noir. He's reached the rot that noir tries to slick up and glamorize.
The three lead cops in L.A. Confidential react to depravity; they have consciences. Hanson wants to give us a richer sense of character than the standard noirs, and, by the end, his cops have earned their chops. The blood on Exley's face no longer looks decorative and out of place, as it did in the beginning. It looks like it belongs there--it's a part of his story. L.A. Confidential is about a war within the police ranks, and it's also a film at war with itself. Hanson craves the lurid shock of pulp, but he also wants to go beyond pulp. With his smarts and his almost tragic sense of the consequences of vice, he just about gets there.
Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey, John Mahnon, David Strathairn. Written by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson. Directed by Hanson. Opens Friday.