There is a long, storied history of straightforward crime stories being heightened as they are told through specific stylistic choices. From Hitchcock’s one-shot trick in Rope to Christopher Nolan twisting time over in half to disorient the audience in Memento, there is something special about a film that sets a parameter of rules early on that it is going to play by and then see it execute upon that promise.
Confession, the new film from director-writer David Beton, quietly but clearly sets up its stylistic choice: the film is set in a single location, a Catholic church in Boston, and will predominantly play out as a conversation between two men. It is a bold choice, as it relies very heavily upon those actors to communicate the whole story in their interactions and reactions. There are brief interruptions of the conceit, at the mid-way point and the finale of the film, but these mostly serve as road markers for the plot. For most of the runtime (an admittedly trim 80 minutes) it is the two lead actors, Stephen Moyer and Colm Meany, twisting through the events that transpired before their fateful meeting.
Like so many movies that make distinctive stylistic choices, the story of Confession is fairly straightforward. A gunshot victim Victor Strong (Moyer) stumbles into a church, gun in hand at the last possible moment as the local priest, Father Peter (Meany), was about to lock up for the night. What proceeds is Strong describing the events that lead to him being shot. But it soon becomes clear that Strong is not being entirely honest with Father Peter, and questions about his true identity and intention cause the Priest to question his loyalties, and what his best path forward should be.
It is a story and approach that could be a crackerjack two-hander with the right material and cast. Unfortunately, the ultimate result can sometimes drag and extend the experience of the brief mystery. This is partially due to Beton’s script, which doesn’t have compelling enough dialogue for a film that is propulsive almost exclusively by a single conversation. For such a short film, there are long stretches of silence between the two men. It is filled to the brim with familiar and hoary crime film tropes. The story itself has moments of actual compelling twists, as Strong’s identity is unpacked over and over, and both Peter and the audience’s allegiances are twisted. But the final act’s ultimate unraveling clunks into place so late and thuddingly that it gives the impression of a story that is suddenly screaming towards a conclusion rather than confidently establishing its pieces early on.
The other weight on the film is Moyer, who functions as the propulsive motivator of the plot but is neither compelling nor especially threatening. He has the heaviest load to carry, and the material along the way mostly lets him down. The script really demands a lot of him, and despite his best efforts, he never quite finds a voice for the character.
Colm Meany performs better, mostly because his ask is mostly to react to the revelations as the night unfolds. His shaky Boston accent notwithstanding, he firmly has a grasp on a man out of his depth and trying to get a grip on anything tangible.
The only other actor with a substantial role is Clare-Hope Ashitey as Willow, a police officer with some information on Victor’s real identity. She appears about half-way through the film proper, though is hinted at earlier; her appearance is a breath of fresh air for the film, as she brings an energy and verve that the story desperately needs at that point. Even Moyer, who is floundering for most of the time before, gets a jolt of energy during this portion. But this is primarily the Moyer and Meany performances, and their chemistry never makes that challenge really spark.
A bright spot worth calling out is that many portions of this extended discussion are shot far more compellingly than the material asks for. The cinematographer Andrew Rodger really relishes the locale he has been given, using streams of light through stained glass to create a moody atmosphere. His collaboration with Beton creates frames that allow for both a sense of majesty and constraint, a visual trick that follows along as the plot evolves.
It is admirable to try a stylistic swing like this. As mentioned in the examples above, when these sort of trappings work, they can create a texture and additional layer that expands the otherwise straightforward narrative. By contrast, Confession feels constrained by its limitations, not elevated. It is entirely possible that the film’s lean cast and constricted locales were a COVID-protocol or even budgetary concern. But these sorts of things have been worked around to brilliant effect before. Here, a few key elements really hinder a film that has interesting ideas but nowhere to put them. Ultimately it is a film that could potentially be something special and unique in the hands of a more intentional auteur and cast. As it stands, it is a promising curio that falls well short of its ambition.