Confession (2020)

Daniel C. Nyiri’s Confession opens with the introduction of two separate characters. Dean McCallum (Gavin Lyall) is a good-natured, generous, well-liked man about town, and a literature professor with a drily ironic wit. And depressive 26-year-old Heather Kadar (Jo Kuzelka) is seeing a therapist about her sense of guilt, trauma and confusion over having miraculously survived, some years earlier, a major earthquake in China that killed tens of thousands (including her best friends). Now fully recovered from her painful injuries, Heather divides her time between good acts – looking after a class of children with special needs, and nursing her invalid father Abel (Steven J. Carter). Yet as she tries to puzzle out whether her past failure to die, amid both the loss of many she loved and the deaths of nearly 70,000, constitutes good or bad luck – a random fluke of fate, or something of greater, if inscrutable, import and significance – it would seem that destiny has another strange twist in store. For on her birthday, Heather is about to have a seemingly arbitrary encounter with Dean that will end in a truly unspeakable act of criminality.

The greater part of Confession comprises a series of police interrogation scenes, as Dean is questioned about the brutal (and thankfully unshown) murder of Heather and Abel. The case seems cut and dried: Dean was arrested after walking into a Mexican diner with his clothes and hands bathed in Heather and Abel’s blood; and though behaving oddly, he seems compos mentis and is not denying his responsibility for what has happened. On the contrary, Dean is even darkly hinting at his involvement in many further deaths, whether by acts of commission or omission on his part. At the same time, Dean’s recent, calculated outrage seems completely out of step with his history of being a decent, law-abiding, well-adjusted citizen. There is no clear motive. Accordingly Confession is a mystery – and as the interrogation-room dialectic goes on and the plot unfolds, the meaning of both that word ‘mystery’, and of the film’s very title, will begin to shift from the generic context of police procedural to the domain of the theological. 

The officers leading the interrogation are Jared Lamb (Gary C. Stillman) and Reina Herrera (Queena DeLany). Though cynical, Reina was raised a Catholic, and is desperate to play life’s lottery by bringing a child into the world even as she struggles with a damaged model of maternity from her own mother. Meanwhile Jared is connected to the case in mysterious ways that we are privileged to see even if he cannot. For, just as Heather was gripped by past trauma, Jared has been left emotionally crippled by his own childhood encounter with a serial killer, Holden Parks (Charlie Heinberg), who is now haunting the dreams of the now middle-aged detective; and just as Heather tells her therapist that her reason for travelling to China was a desire to see a panda bear, so Jared finds a toy panda in one of his dreams. In fact, Jared’s sessions with Dean will turn out to be not unlike Heather’s with her therapist, enabling the policeman to explore his own assumptions, thoughts, feelings and doubts. Though irrational, this network of invisible associations suggests a grander framework of meaning, elusive and enigmatic, in need of resolution. Shortly before Heather is killed, we see a man with a cane and dark glasses guiding two others with similar impairments past her suburban home. The blind leading the blind – it is an apt metaphor for a scenario in which everybody, including the viewer, fast becomes lost.

Dean McCallum (Gavin Lyall): father time, or the devil?

The interrogation is a stock scene in cinema. It is not just a staple of policiers and investigative thrillers, but also sometimes, in films like Giuseppe Tornatore’s A Pure Formality (1994), Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), the very centre of the narrative, around which hermeneutic mysteries are solved, or indeed further obscured. The key is in the word – for an interrogation is the locus for asking questions, where, as Dean puts it, “the truth, no matter how disturbing”, is sought. Jared and Reina know whodunnit, and know what he did, which leaves only the question of why. Accordingly, they are on a teleological quest, where the really big questions begin to get asked – and although at first the film seems to be in familiar generic territories, once Dean starts insisting he is not really Dean, exhibiting a mentalist’s ability to intuit things that no individual ought possibly to know and warping the detectives’ very sense of reality, it becomes clear that Confession is less about solving a crime than about a “larger picture” involving age-old issues like the problem of evil, the limits of faith, the paradox of free will, and the nature of the divine. Here, to borrow a phrase from Dean, “Everything ends up being blatantly symbolic.”

Nyiri’s feature debut is a low-budget film containing vast, provocative ideas and ambitions, much as the small police interrogation room is made to accommodate, if not quite confine, something ineffable and unimaginable. One might even call Confession the greatest story ever (re)told, as it makes a drama of what it might be like for an almighty entity to appear and to seek direct, corrective dialogue with humanity in our modern, secular times. The film may not help the viewer actually find enlightenment – but it does suggest that we all need, every day, to keep looking and to keep asking questions. In the end, it is the viewer’s beliefs which are being interrogated here – and the results are a bold, sometimes bizarre parable of the human condition, where massacres and miracles coexist, and where God (or at least the writer/director) moves in mysterious ways.

strap: Daniel C. Nyiri’s interrogation room mystery starts as police procedural, and ends as miraculous epiphany

© Anton Bitel