Review: Confessions

Teacher vs. Students: A Revenge Story

Courtesy of wsj.com

Courtesy of wsj.com

For nearly two hours, Testsuya Nakashima’s Confessions mercilessly hammers us with the nails of its characters’ afflictions, something that might have amounted to a kind of sordidly tragic art if the movie didn’t possess such a clumsy narrative structure and an oversaturation of melodrama; even for a story as drastic as this one, the dramatic embellishments feel excessive. As a result, the movie feels labored and even silly, slowly deflating over the course of its plodding two hours. 

Based off the little I knew about its plot, I began Confessions with an entirely different movie in mind. The story begins the same. A schoolteacher, Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), swears vengeance upon the students responsible for her daughter’s death. The movie I imagined, however, rarely left the classroom where it began.  Confined by the protected environment of a public school and the rigid boundaries of juvenile law, Moriguchi would have had to execute an especially intricate plan of revenge to navigate around these obstacles, suggesting perhaps the Japanese equivalent of a Hitchcock film.

Of course, it’s unfair to project such expectations onto a movie prior to watching it, but they demonstrate quite well what the antithesis of Confessions might have looked like. A leaner, more streamlined approach to assembling the movie would likely have been more effective, allowing for suspense to unfold organically through the story and the characters. As it is, the actual movie doesn’t resemble my filmic fabrication at all. For one thing, the movie does leave the classroom.  In itself not a problem, this action marks the start of the movie’s narrative messiness as multiple backstories and angles are crammed into the central storyline, which quickly branches into an appalling network of deceit and overelaborate plot details.

The movie unfolds through multiple character perspectives in a way not unlike the narrative scheme of the poorly-received political thriller Vantage Point. As with that movie, Confessions doesn’t manage its story’s non-linearity well; instead of letting the events snowball off of one another on the path to a culminating climax, the movie piles every characters’ story back-to-back, a fatal mistake because we are forced into a rote narrative pattern. After an hour or so, suspense is lost and our interest diverted by thoughts of how the movie could have organized itself better.

Even more bothersome is how deliberately and persistently the movie hankers after being not merely dark but acid-black, becoming so self-consciously lurid it passes into absurdity. Much of the movie aims to play off the nightmarish stigmas surrounding “disturbed” children to generate an unsettlingly relevant breed of horror, but the characters in Confessions often cease to be human altogether, feeling more like comic-horror caricatures trapped in a deadly serious movie. Consider how implausible it is for so many dead-eyed teenage sociopaths to attend the same middle school (middle school!). Notice the uncompromising nastiness of the general student population, how over-elaborately cruel the character’s machinations are.  All feed into the notion that the movie tries too hard to shock and unsettle us.

In its exaggerations, the movie departs from psychological realism to embrace a perverse level of pulp that is vivid but joyless, lacking the camp and dry humor that defined the best of its kind of twisted entertainment. That being said, the movie does translate its pulp sensibilities into a striking visual scheme that resembles an extended music video. Hyper-stylized noir devices abound, from heavy shadows and silhouettes to an abundance of slow-motion to generate a sense of menace; blues and grays seep across every frame, evoking the pitiless existence of the movie’s conniving, murderous inhabitants. Admittedly, the editing goes overboard at times (using five different cuts to capture a single image is unnecessary) and the movie’s visual dramatization does exacerbate the morbid melodrama mentioned earlier, but Confessions’ look remains its most compelling asset, heightening the artistic appeal of what is otherwise a rather tepid experience.

Revenge movies are difficult to do well. So shopworn and simple by nature, each new addition to the genre needs to embed itself in our memories in order to be successful, much as movies like Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy did through innovation. In this sense, Confessions deserves recognition.  Even though the movie doesn’t pan out, it had its ambitions set in the right places. It boldly dices up the usual straight-shot narrative by trying to tell a story from different angles; it creates a dynamic, memorable visual canvas to accompany its dark themes. Confessions is a movie that tried and failed, but at least it tried.

Grade: C

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