The Black Dahlia (2006)Rated R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.
Starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw.
LVJeff's Rating: 5/10
Photo ©Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.
Color It Noir -- and More
The Black Dahlia is one of those movies you know must be made by a director of some reputation because it immediately feels different, like it's carving its own path to places unknown on the screen. It contains a distinctness to it, in the way the camera moves, in the way the picture is lit, in the way the actors act. As it begins, the excitement of watching such a movie may give way to trepidation -- the film moves unpredictably, possibly veering to corners so remote you won't know what to make of it anymore.
In the case of this latest from Brian De Palma, moments of technical bravado are punctuated with moments lacking stylistic restraint -- what starts off as daring and gutsy one minute may cross the border to camp instead. It's a movie with showcase set pieces wrapped in a fantastic period environmental scheme (Los Angeles of the '40s), but populated with actors exhibiting dynamically different ranges in a story that tries hard to escape its reins.
That story is based on James Ellroy's novel of the same name, itself based around the true life story of Elizabeth Short, a young wannabe starlet who was found murdered and horrifically mutilated in January 1947. It's one of Los Angeles's most famous and enduring unsolved mysteries; here, it's worked into a story about a police officer, Det. Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who struggles with his sense of direction as he investigates the case and finds himself in a world of secrets, questionable loyalties, and sordid relations.
It sounds interesting, but the movie subdues Hartnett's character by making him the quietest role in the bunch. He feels outacted -- perhaps in quality but most definitely in quantity -- by what should be his supporting cast. This includes Aaron Eckhart as Bleichert's senior partner, Det. Blanchard, delivering an unchained, nervous ferocity to his role; Scarlett Johansson as Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake, dolled up and pretty but never quite convincing as a character; and Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott, an object of investigation and love interest for Bleichert. Swank vamps it up a bit as a dangerous seductress, but she gets upstaged by John Kavanagh and Fiona Shaw, who play her parents.
Shaw's Mrs. Linscott in particular will be the character no one will forget after seeing The Black Dahlia -- compared to the other people in the film, she's downright psychotic. She may be one extreme end of this movie's spectrum of disparate acting styles, all of which serve to create the sensation that nothing here can be literally believed. Indeed, it's a kind of shock whenever the movie cuts to a scene of the detectives watching old screen test footage of Short -- as played by Mia Kirshner, the doomed would-be actress feels dimensionally real, as if the trip to black-and-white takes us to even grounding, away from the phantasmagorical color dreamscape.
The Black Dahlia never feels as if its ingredients aren't part of the same movie, but those ingredients don't exhibit enough teamwork to take this story to a satisfying dramatic destination. This is, like so many noir movies about L.A., a story about a city built on impurities hidden beneath the surface. Even if we know the story by heart, its black revelations should still sting, if not like a punch in the gut then at least like a pinch to remind us of the reality of human beings driven by corrupt motives and selfish or twisted desires. De Palma's movie, though, languishes in its flourishes -- although the style amps the attractiveness of individual scenes, it undercuts believability across the whole. It feels like Chinatown with more color but less urgency.
I also think the path of the story creates a missed opportunity. The case of the "Black Dahlia," as Short was posthumously nicknamed, derives much of its fascination from a primal paradox within men -- a simultaneous desire to both harm and protect women (both of which, I believe, represent an urge to suppress women). I think a movie about the investigation of a woman who was found, for heaven's sake, cut in half and disemboweled might've led to some observed insights about how men view women, and how that can generate such sensationalism (if it was a man, and not the young and attractive Short, would this story get even half the attention?).
But The Black Dahlia actually spends more of its time creating a competitive environment for its women -- i.e., competitive with each other. It overshadows the psychological struggles of the men in regards to women -- Bleichert's passive presence underplays the dilemmas of his attachments to Kay and Madeleine, and a late revelation about Blanchard just passes by. Meanwhile, Short's actress associates exhibit cattiness, lesbianism is perceived as a sleazy domination exercise, and the film climaxes with a heavy dose of female poison. The implication is that this feminine competitiveness is what eventually led to Short's horrific death -- it's a scenario I have a hard time digesting in a movie that already doesn't feel as serious as it should be to begin with.
©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 11, 2006