The Black Dahlia (2006) / Mystery-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, grisly images, violence, and language
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Patrick Fischler, James Otis, John Kavanagh, Rose McGowan, William Finley, Ian McNeice (cameo), Brian De Palma (voice), k.d. lang (cameo)
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Josh Friedman (based on the novel by James Ellroy)
Review published October 24, 2006
Brian De Palma (Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes) takes on James Ellroy's 1987 neo-noir novel, "The Black Dahlia", but this one's no L.A. Confidential. Instead, it's a seamy murder mystery that plays out as far too campy to take seriously, with a lack of focus that makes it uncertain just what the film is really about, if it's about anything at all. Still, it's a De Palma film, which means a good visual energy and a heavy dose of titillation, and this does keep the attention while the film is building up to something. It's only when you realize that this build up doesn't really go anywhere that it begins to become uninteresting, until it finally gets down to the climax, when everything falls completely apart with a laughably executed revelation scene that feels like it belongs more in a comedy than in a serious thriller.
Those who are interested in grisly crime mysteries will already recognize the subject of Ellroy's book as the infamous "Black Dahlia" murder, where a young female drifter named Elizabeth Short (Kirshner, According to Spencer) was murdered, her torso cut in half, and her body drained of blood. To this day, the murder has not been solved, so what follows in the book is mainly fiction. The film is set in Los Angeles during the 1940s, where two ex-boxing champ cops, Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett, Lucky Number Slevin) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking), are involved in part of the investigation behind that grisly murder. The clues take them into the seamy, corrupt underbelly of Hollywood of the times, with leads that take them into the realm of pornographic films, prostitution, lesbian clubs, and their ties with the well-to-do establishment that greases their wheels.
Although one could point to several things as to why the film doesn't work, ultimately I feel that most of the blame has to be shouldered by Brian De Palma himself for never establishing the right tone for the film throughout. It's difficult to say if the movie is supposed to be a mystery, thriller, romance, comedy, drama, or action, changing directions quite often, while scenes go by without any real connection with the scene that comes before. De Palma has often been criticized for being more interested in how to stage a scene more so than he is in the content of it, and that feeling certainly bears true here.
One other thing that the film lacks is real star presence. While The Black Dahlia does sport an impressive cast of recognizable actors, none of them are quite formidable enough to knock us out with an interesting character portrayal. Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, The Core) comes closest in a vampish femme fatale role, but with the low-key Hartnett on the other side, they feel like characters from different movies altogether. Meanwhile, Johannson's (Scoop, The Island) character hardly merits someone with her talent, so when she is relegated into a thankless supporting role, there's an imbalance created, as if there should be more substance there that never comes to light. I guess the "should have more substance" comment could be directed toward the movie as a whole, as important plot points feel glossed over in favor of the sexier material.
The Black Dahlia has occasional hiccups of interest, but never really strings them together sufficiently to gain any momentum. Whatever tenuous grasp on our attention it still manages to hold falls completely apart in a ridiculous gunfight sequence, and a final summation to the mystery, featuring over-the-top acting that sinks the entire film into the realm of the absurd. If De Palma lets it all rip because doesn't care anymore, why should we?
I'm uncertain as to who to recommend The Black Dahlia to, except perhaps those who have enjoyed the novel and are curious how the film plays out, despite the fact that the film differs from the book in substantial ways. Perhaps it may even gain reputation as an example of great camp (I'm not sure this was intentional given De Palma's recent track record), although that's certainly not something that De Palma would probably be proud of. While the film does center around two detectives trying to determine who drained the blood and removed the reproductive organs of some young wayward girl, the real mystery is why someone drained the intelligence out of Ellroy's novel, ripping out its soul in favor of glossy, empty-headed vacuousness.
©2006 Vince Leo