Get Thee Behind Me, Movie!
When done right, gimmick movies can be really cool. These are movies that futz around with either how a story is told or where a story is told. For example, Memento is a gimmick movie in that it tells the story backward, yet it does so in a coherent manner. Beyond the gimmick, it’s an excellent film that has a lot to say about grief, memory, and how we perceive time.
We don’t see too many gimmick movies that take place in real-time.* That’s because a seriously skilled filmmaker needs to be at the helm in order to prevent the run time from being superfluous. Do we need to see a moment in Die Hard where John McClane scampers around Nakatomi Plaza looking for a place to take a leak? Ehh…probably not.
On the other hand, we do see quite a few contained location films these days. Why? Because they’re cheap to make since you only need to deal with sets and props associated with a single place. The challenge there is you need either a) a very strong plot & characters to make us forget about the lack of location variety,** b) a location that has some inherent variety, such as a mansion or c) both.
When done wrong, a gimmick film can feel like a slog, and unfortunately, Confession is one of those films. Individual aspects of it worked fairly well, and if I turn my head and squint just so, I can see what the filmmakers were going for. It wants to be a clever and hardcore meditation on faith and masculinity. It isn’t.
Night has fallen on the church of Father Peter (Colm Meaney). His parishioners have been absolved of their sins. Candles have been blown out. Business in the house of the Lord has been done for the day and, presumably, Father Peter will head to his quarters, kick off his cassock, and have a quiet drink.
Only he won’t because, Victor (Stephen Moyer) arrives. He’s agitated, bleeding from a stomach wound, and waving a gun around. He demands to know how many exit points the church has, and if anyone else is in the church. Does Victor have a plan, per se. Nope! He seems content to act like a dick in front of Father Peter.
Father Peter seems to have a knack for chatting with wounded, belligerent, gun-toting dudes. He manages to calm Victor. The two men talk. And talk. And talk. Father Peter begs him to face up to whatever has led Victor into this situation and behave like a decent man. A good man.
We don’t know if Victor is a good man, but we’re positive he’s a long-winded one. He spins a convoluted yarn about dirty cops, a crime syndicate, and the blowback that enveloped his wife and daughter. Victor and Father Peter has a whole world of problems. The most immediate is Willow (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a woman who’s hidden in Father Peter’s study. Does she also have a gun? Yes! Is she going to complicate matters by flashing a badge? Also yes! Will there be more speeches, accusations, betrayals, and verbal sparring? Oh, you better believe it.
My gut tells me that the budget of Confession was teeny-tiny. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s incumbent upon a director to make the most of it and get creative. Director David Beton tries to goose the energy levels with a soaring score and occasionally flashy edits. It doesn’t work as all the scenes either take place in the dimly lit nave of the cathedral or in Father Peter’s study. Beton doesn’t seem to know how to use the space creatively, and, as a result, there are very long scenes of people just sitting or standing around talking. As a result, the pacing is glacial, and that lack of energy forces the actors to work twice as hard to keep the whole thing afloat.
One of the hoariest cliches in screenwriting is the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” This is one of those cliches that also happens to be one hundred percent accurate. Beton wrote the screenplay which wants to be a Rashomon-esque affair of dueling perspectives. That’s not a bad idea, as long as the respective personalities are distinctive. The characters of Father Peter and Victor are fairly vividly drawn, and we always have a relatively good sense of where they’re coming from. The screenplay’s fatal flaw is that an enormous amount of time is given to exposition. I get that the production likely couldn’t afford flashbacks, but these are the scenes that flashbacks were built for. Either more money needed to be spent, or there needed to be a more creative and interesting way to portray the characters’ journeys. There are also some moments in the plot that are, to be honest, dumb as hell. This is one of those crime films where the main characters shouldn’t logically be all connected, but they are, and we in the audience pay for it.
The good news is that we have two actors who attack the flimsy material and do their level best. Colm Meaney continues to be one of Ireland’s most reliable character actors. He’s one of those guys that can play a crook, a cop, do comedy, drama, whatever you need. As Father Peter, he gets to play a genuinely compassionate man. He pushes Victor to reckon with his past, and Father Peter must deal with his own shortcomings. Meaney doesn’t often get to play vulnerable, and he’s more than up to the challenge. As Victor, Stephen Moyer is playing a Good Man With a Past. He does his best with the material, yet Moyer is frequently saddled with long monologues explaining the plot, snarling at Father Peter, and regretting the choices that brought him here. He’s doing his best, but he’s stuck with a poorly written part. If Moyer were given something better to work with, I’m confident he would have knocked it out of the park. The character of Willow is kind of nonexistent***and Clare-Hope Ashitey is unfortunately given very little to do. She does her best with what she’s given, and she certainly deserved to be given more.
Confession is a contained location thriller that’s not thrilling. It’s a movie about men suffering manfully, but certainly not suffering in silence. The right gimmick movies do interesting things to the form and tempo of storytelling. The wrong ones simply remind us they’re gimmicks.
*Though I remain a big fan of the real-time thriller Nick of Time. You’ve got Christopher Walken as your villain and Johnny Depp playing a completely normal person for once. Genius!
**To my mind, the platonic ideal of the contained location film is the outstanding The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. It’s a thriller set amongst far-right militia members and one of them might be an undercover cop.
***When you have three characters in your movie, two of them are White men with extensive backstories and character arcs, yet the third character is a Black woman with virtually no character, that’s just not a good look. I don’t think Beton is a bad guy, but he’s definitely got some serious blind spots.