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The Black Dahlia

Brian De Palma, USA, 2006

Rating: 2.8

 

Posted: September 16, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Admittedly, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia would be a tough book for anyone to adapt into a mainstream motion picture. It’s a bleakly and luridly violent work, both in terms of the physical violence done to the titular murder victim and in terms of its carcinogenic mood. Obsessed with the brutal murder of his mother, Ellroy poured out a lifetime of conflicted love, anger and misogyny into a period noir novel concerned with one of the most brutal unsolved crimes in Los Angeles’ grim history. Choked with a kudzu of twisting plotlines, its maze-like flow echoes the careening emotions that ricocheted through Ellroy’s brain (that is, if his 1996 memoir My Dark Places is any indication).

Still, that Brian De Palma would craft an adaptation as pretty as it is empty shouldn’t come as a surprise. Before he started turning his attention to hit-or-miss Hollywood product starting with 1987’s The Untouchables, the director established himself as the pre-eminent auteur of psychosexual theater. Carrie; Obsession; Dressed to Kill; Blow Out; Body Double; Scarface -- the works for which he’s best known are visually striking tableaus of violence and/or sex, pulsing with the voyeuristic, almost onanistic thrill of watching people fall victim to confusion, manipulation, society and themselves.

What Ellroy’s Dahlia needs is someone to cut through the author’s obsessions, to delineate them in sharp detail, to plunge us into them and make us understand, if not empathize, with them -- to make us as obsessed with the murder of pretty young aspiring actress Elizabeth Short as his characters are. But De Palma layers his own fascinations on top of Ellroy’s, smothering them. True, their obsessions share a surface similarity, but they’re not the same: Ellroy’s book struggles to make sense of Short’s inexplicably vicious murder (she was chopped in half, her mouth slit into a Joker grin); De Palma’s instinct is to revel in the heightened tension, the pathology that charges the atmosphere around his characters.

Not that that sense of immersion translates very well. Preoccupied with its outward appearance, De Palma’s Dahlia presents a stylized vision of Los Angeles -- murky stairways, shadowy alleys, cavernous, dimly lit police stations and gaudy lesbian nightclubs complete with glitzy production numbers. (As if.)

Against that backdrop, detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) attempts to get to the bottom of many things: the murder of Short (dubbed “the Black Dahlia” by the press); the bug-eyed obsession his gung-ho partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) develops over the case; the secret at the core of Lee’s relationship with the beauteous Kay Lane (Scarlett Johnansson); Bucky’s own fixation on masculine femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).

In the early going, the actors do the material justice. Eckhart is compelling as Lee, whose unhinged absorption in the case makes him careless. Hartnett is serviceable as the movie’s wary and weary Virgil, guiding us through Ellroy’s Inferno. His blankness works in his favor; his Bucky is a solemn watcher, keeping his opinions to himself, working things out in his head. The preternaturally pouty Johansson projects a fragile toughness as the wounded Kay. And Mia Kirshner is heartbreaking as Short, glimpsed in snatches of a black-and-white audition reel that underlines the small deaths that the cruelties of show business inflict upon so many attractive women.

But the performers lose steam as the film progresses, unsure how to proceed with a plot-heavy screenplay that makes things muddier than necessary. Johansson in particular seems lost. Swank, meanwhile, is almost laughably miscast as a seductress; she’s lantern-jawed and stern when she should be smoldering.

The Black Dahlia does manage to hammer home the book’s easier thematic points -- Bucky blames himself for failing his partner, and pours that guilt into his hunt for the killer, just as Lee’s torment over failing to figure out Short’s murder reflects his need to protect Kay. But the movie’s heavy-handed tone prevents us from identifying with anyone. We’re numbed by its mood just when we should be adrenalized by Bucky’s quest.

When Bucky does figure things out, things start to pick up, even though you have to take his deductions on faith. But the film’s climactic scene spirals helplessly into midnight-movie farce, thanks to a performance by Fiona Shaw that even camp-adoring queens will find over-the-top. Bucky springs back to life here, serving as judge, jury and executioner, pointing his own critical finger at the tawdriness and corruption that stand as a metaphor for Los Angeles itself. But it’s too little, too late. We don’t share Bucky’s obsession with Madeleine, Kay or the Dahlia. But like him, we shake our heads, wondering just how things went so wrong.

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