Perhaps you’ve heard quite a bit about The Black Dahlia in recent days (even more so considering we’re reviewing it a week late). How style maestro Brian de Palma was helming this James Ellroy-based murder mystery, which meant lots of femme fatales, doppelgangers, sex, sleek and sleaze. How it was based on the real-life brutal torturing and murdering of an up-and-coming screen actress in 1940s LA. How rough-hide gumshoes would slink down dark, foggy alleys with gats in their hands and cigs in their mouths. How Scarlett Johansson was starring in it.
I know I heard all about it and thought: “This is gonna be the best movie ever!”
Pft, would that it were. There’s only one virtuoso de Palma scene in this film, and it’s not even that cool. The femme fatale role is filled by Hilary Swank. Josh Hartnett is the primary detective – a far, far cry from Humphrey Bogart. Scarlet Johansson’s character is a tool, and the most we see is her cleavage. And on top of all that, it’s confusing as hell!
OK, I’ll exit trashy fan-boy mode now. On second thought, no, no I won’t. After all, what else can one expect the audience of The Black Dahlia to be? Not only is it noir, it’s neo-noir and hammy neo-noir at that. It’s Brian de Palma; it’s James Ellroy. If they’ve taken the real-life case of Elizabeth Short – The Black Dahlia – who really was tortured and murdered, and then turned it into this celluloid heap of style and intrigue, then why can’t we come as wolves for the slaughter? Who cares about misogyny or exploitation with a film like this? All that it can offend is taste, and if you came because of that, then I’m afraid you have none.
On that note, then, The Black Dahlia fails. Not because it treats women exclusively as sex objects or murderous vamps. Not because it’s violent and has no respect for life or for death. It fails because it doesn’t exploit enough. Go see this film with your preset expectations (of entertainment and sex and murder, of course), and I guarantee that it will not meet them.
The film grapples with too many storylines and names and faces. You would think that the film would generally follow the trajectory of two detectives (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) trying to find the murderer of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). Well, maybe it does, but I’ll be damned if you can locate both A and B and then see how the movie got from one to the other.
Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) and Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Eckhart) find themselves consumed by the fate of The Black Dahlia as they get embroiled in the investigation. But how and why? That’s never really fleshed out, never really believable, and certainly never entertaining. No matter though – if you fall out of the loop, you’ll surely wake back up when blood spatters across the camera.
Among the most vexing plot bends involve the voluptuous, play-both-sides-against-the-middle Kay Lake (Johansson), and the mysterious, creepy, and mysteriously creepy Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). I won’t even begin to explain their stores, because I can’t. But let’s just say that they play important roles, and their associates and back stories become crucial parts of the final thrust of the plot.
So the movie is convoluted, as is this review. (Perhaps I should have waited a few hours until after I saw it – I think it froze my reasoning powers). All I know, all I feel, is that it didn’t leave me satisfied. My post-film equilibrium is not commensurate with my pre-film equilibrium, and that’s gotta be a sign of a bad experience.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not asking for simplicity. I can handle complexity and even – gasp – nuance. But story obfuscation and characters-within-a-character do not qualify. I went to the movie to see smoke and mirrors, not for smoke and mirrors. The Black Dahlia may be hard-boiled, but it has long since rotted.