July 17, 2011

The Black Dahlia

The murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in January of 1947 still fascinates people today, including James Ellroy, whose novel this was based on. However, this 2006 crime-thriller, which promises to be akin to the knockout noir L.A. Confidential (1997), is a freaking mess. Brian De Palma directed, without the kinky excitement he brought to his early thrillers (Dressed to Kill and Carrie come to mind). The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is first-rate. He captures beautifully the fact that there's nothing going on in this movie that you should care about. As luridly tingling as the Black Dahlia case is, this movie should have been an easy success. Instead, The Black Dahlia looks the other way, on purpose, as a matter of "style." Rather than focusing on the Elizabeth Short murder, it veers into other, fabricated directions.

Why, I'll never know.

Everything is contrived. If you come to this movie expecting an absorbing retelling of a scintillating true crime tale (even with the knowledge that Hollywood typically tinkers with historical fact), you've come to the wrong movie. If you've come looking for even a whisper of narrative logic, you'll also be left wanting. It's nonsensical. Big dramatic scenes are inflated and unexpected even. When they unfold, we laugh because they're so poorly conceived. (In one scene, Josh Hartnett, as one of the detectives investigating the Dahlia murders, pulls a table cloth off a table in a fit of passion with Scarlet Johansson. It seems a pity to make such a mess with a movie that's so carefully dull.)

De Palma has always been a manipulative little cheat of a director, playing with the audience in obvious ways, but in The Black Dahlia he doesn't even do that. We're supposed to sit back in awe of the "master" at work, but he isn't working, and neither is the movie. The blame should probably go also to the screenwriter, Scott Friedman, as well as James Ellroy (assuming his book is akin to Friedman's adaptation).

The main characters, two LAPD detectives (Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) are involved in a love triangle with the boring, flirtatious Scarlet Johansson. Johansson was best in Woody Allen's Scoop. He brought out the passion in her, and the curious little pixie that she can turn into, the one who wooed Hugh Jackman, the handsome killer. But she tends to be uninteresting without a good director, and in The Black Dahlia, De Palma doesn't know what to do with her. Perhaps to him, her beauty is enough to maintain the audience's interest in her acting. But for anyone looking beyond the surface, there's little satisfaction.

De Palma is at a loss with the other actors, too. Eckhart's character becomes obsessed with the Dahlia case (he's the only aspect of this movie that stays focused on the Elizabeth Short murder, when the entire film should be reveling in Black Dahlia mania). And so quickly does he go bananas that we as an audience don't feel invested in his transformation. We can only jeer and laugh at a performance that falls flat and looks out of place. He's in the wrong movie. He's in the movie about the Black Dahlia murder, not the movie that pretends to be about the Black Dahlia murder.

As for Hartnett, he's never been that compelling of an actor, and using him in the lead is a miscalculation. He narrates clumsily the clumsy narration (not to mention the clumsy dialogue), and he's so scrawny and young that you don't really buy him as a detective--or as a contender in a boxing match that occurs early in the film (and feels just as out of place as everything else in this misfired movie).

There are some scenes where the police view screen tests of Elizabeth Short. They're meant to humanize the disfigured corpse left in grisly exhibition in an overgrown lot, but instead they just turn her into a bimbo who told fairy tells to get what she wanted. And maybe that's true of the real Elizabeth Short, but for a movie that gives little attention to the subject of its title, this adds yet another nail in the coffin. And Hilary Swank, who's desperately in need of a meal, shows up as another bimbo, someone for Josh Hartnett's character to sleep with in lieu of Johnasson, from whom he feels an obligation to abstain (since she's living with his partner).

Fiona Shaw gives the most overwrought performance as Swank's hopped up mother, a society woman who knows more than a bit about the Short murder. In fact, her performance is so hysterically bad, that I recommend watching this movie now. It was earth-shattering. The always exciting Rose McGowan has a cameo as one of Elizabeth Short's roommates. It's a pity that she had such a small part. She's far more interesting an actress than either Scarlet or Swank.

If only The Black Dahlia were as exciting as L.A. Confidential, or any of the old 1940's film noirs that it was modeled after. Instead, we're left with a labyrinthine mess of a movie that's shooting blanks after promising a bang.

No comments: