Film Review: Confession (2020)

Starring: Gary C. Stillman, Gavin Lyall, Queena DeLany, Jo Kuzelka, Bailey Barnick, Charlie Heinberg and Cynthia Martells

Directed by: Daniel C. Nyiri

Synopsis: For two detectives Dean McCallum (Lyall) is an enigma; is he a psychopath, is he a serial killer? Does he suffer from multiple personalities, could he potentially be possessed by demons? Or is there something even more shocking to consider?

Making the jump from production design to filmmaking, Daniel C. Nyiri’s directorial debut, Confession (also penned by him), sees him tackle the human condition, questioning who we are, what we are, and what makes us do what we do. Are we bound by religion? Or is it rather an incident that occurred earlier in life; in childhood or a couple of weeks ago? When Jared Lamb (Stillman) and Reina Herrera (DeLany) are given the unenviable task of coming to grips with a brutal double homicide, Nyiri shows us in just under two hours how those elements, and more, are imperative on the decisions that get us through the day.
While a case as graphic as what they’re dealt with would likely lead to a moment (or ten) of reflection, what actually drives our protagonists through hell is an interrogation with an all too guilty man. An all too guilty man also well liked by everybody who’s ever known him, we very quickly learn that this ‘man’ isn’t all that he seems, and it’s from this point forward that a seemingly straightforward story becomes equally complex and impressive for a first time effort.

Still, it’s rare that a debut will be perfect, and Nyiri’s interesting screenplay and delve into the theological isn’t without a couple of drawbacks. And for me, the biggest problem is the dialogue, or more so the delivery of it. I can more than appreciate what Nyiri is going for and what his characters are trying to say, but most of the time the script feels forced and unnatural. Yes, 99% of the cast in this film are of little experience, and when that’s the case you’re bound to have many moments where conversations and scenes flow poorly. However, given that Confession is driven by its lengthy monologues, there’s a significant downside here. That said, one example of awkward dialogue that stands out is a simple sentence, Lamb’s “Am I looking at what I think I’m looking at?” when arriving at the crime scene. To me this felt like the most generic reaction, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way of expressing that reaction, whether it was better phrasing or through body language alone.
When you’ve been given a limited budget of $20,000, though, you have to work with the cards you’re dealt, and in thinking about that budget, it does make the positive aspects in regards to performance and dialogue delivery better. Lyall, for example, shines in the second half of the film, reciting his lines with a noticeably good flow. Most of all, I liked his monologue where he slated the notion that “Evil must be ugly. How black and white“, and his later declaration of “I am God.” Now, whether he was actually God or not you’ll have to watch to find out, but if anything I thought this confirmation of “McCallum” having a Manson complex was nice touch after prior references to Bundy and Gacy. For all the comparisons to them, for him to mirror a criminal who wasn’t a serial killer was a smart move, and it even adds to the Manson influence you can see in the character’s movements earlier on.
Unsurprisingly, the stand out actor in this film – despite her limited screen time – is Martells as Dr. Waverly. While she doesn’t own a particularly great filmography (with all due respect to Dunston Checks In) she evidently gives the finest performance here and that has to be down to her experience from over the years. Dialogue that falls flat spoken by others is fine when she recites it, and it’s clear indication that Nyiri’s writing is simply calling for stars who have the right amount of skill to execute it properly.

Moving on from the quality of dialogue and performance, Matt St. Charles’ cinematography also has its ups and downs throughout. At times nicely focused with solid captures of the Northern Humboldt County’s surrounding area and forest locations – Nyiri’s production design is also spot on, no surprises there – there are instances where sudden zoom ins on faces and blood-covered knives feel like excessive attempts to increase the drama and tension, when a simple shot would work just as effectively, and feel less common in the process.
What stands out as the biggest disappointments to Confession, though, often come hand in hand: slow motion and exposition. Whether it’s Casey (Barnick) telling her story or the scene stressing how Lambert and Herrera have hit rock bottom, the excessive need to slow the action down and tell us so much of the story in the form of a flashback had no positive implications for me, and in fact did more to lessen my attention than it did to draw me more into the film. The songs selected for these scenes is also questionable, but once again you have to take into account the budget and what was both available and relevant to what Nyiri was trying to say at these moments of the film. Steve McAllister’s score itself is fine, but there were several scenes where it seemed to be predominantly playing over the top, distracting us from the story that the actors were telling – the interrogation scene just over half an hour into the film is a prime example of this.
Having said all that, if there’s one silver lining to the latter expositive scene mentioned, it’s that the sequence is brought to a sudden halt by a somewhat unsettling scene taking place in the Northern Humboldt County forest. Nyiri doesn’t feature overly many unsettling scenes in Confession, but the ones he does include – a figure in the distance hitting a hammer off the ground, elderly people standing lifelessly in the middle of the road, or Lamb’s first dream being ended by a jump scare that I’ll admit did catch me off guard – have their value, and what’s arguably best about them, is in how these otherwise loose ends are ultimately given resolution and meaning within the film. Whatever else can be said for Confession, good or bad, at least Nyiri went without including loads of pointless jump scares simply for the sake of it.

As far as debuts go, it’s not quite Terrence Malick’s Badlands, but how many debuts are? With a heftier budget allowing for stronger actors, better music choices, and a slightly more focused structure that doesn’t call for multiple expositive flashbacks, there’s a lot of potential for future Nyiri films based on the positives and negatives found in Confession. This is a fascinating film that makes us ask who, what and why about the characters onscreen – and if you’ve been captivated enough, about yourself as well.

Confessions is available to watch on Prime Video, if you’re a fan of mystery thrillers, check it out!

Rating: 2/5

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