The Black Dahlia (2006)
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Patrick Fischler
Directed by: Brian De Palma
I originally had mild interest in seeing this movie when it first came out, but then I heard that it sucked, so I stayed away. But then a recent trip to the video store yielded no other results, so I decided it was time to see for myself if the movie was all that bad. Even though I’d been warned it’s not worth watching for free on a day when you have nothing better to do. I figured that if it indeed did suck, I could at least write a scathing review, which are always more fun than half-hearted, “meh” reviews.
Well, here comes that review, cause this movie sucked about as much as I heard that it did. Just a complete mess of a movie that, despite some decent qualities, doesn’t come together in anyway that justifies its existence. Brian De Palma takes a crack at James Ellroy‘s novel of the same name, detailing the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, or at least that’s what the title suggests. In actuality, the murder and subsequent investigation that may have drawn the viewer to the movie, plays out more as a subplot than anything, not given a sense of focus or urgency that the subject demands.
The movie takes an entire first act of establishing the genre and era of the film, introducing the particulars and mood of the film, before ever getting to the murder. Which would be fine, if any of it were particularly interesting or unique, instead of just a bad copy of L.A. Confidential (another movie based on an Ellroy novel). Once the murder is discovered, the main character, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) makes it explicitly clear that he’d rather be investigating a case other than the Black Dahlia murder, and when his partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) gets really wrapped in the case, his role in the movie is pushed to the margins. De Palma gets so wrapped up in his noir themes and lurid imagery that we never get a sense that we’re meant to care about the murder. So I didn’t.
Hartnett is actually decent in his role, making me believe he’s reached a Keanu Reeves level of public opinion, in that the view of his acting is held in such low regard that when he’s cast in a role that plays to his weaknesses, his flat, smirking expression and dull, expressionless eyes, the audience is pleasantly surprised (kinda like when Keanu is cast as a confused and bewildered character). The conventions of noir work for Hartnett, making him a decent, if unimpressive lead for the film. Scarlett Johansson is seductive at times, but more often flat, which I’m starting to begrudgingly accept is par for the course for her. But the absolute worst element of the entire cast is Hilary Swank as femme-fatale Madeleine Linscott.
You have to assume that Swank took the aggressively feminine role to combat the perception that she’s a little man-ish, coming off of roles that called her to play a butch boxer or a girl passing as a dude. Ironically, this role that has her slinking around in cocktail dresses and purring demurely have her looking more drag-y than usual. Worse, she has an absolutely terrible Scottish accent that takes you out of the movie every time she opens her horse mouth. Worst, is that a key element to her character is that she bares a strong resemblance to the victim, portrayed by Mia Kirshner, and uhhh… no. I don’t care how they style Swank’s hair, she doesn’t look like Kirshner, no matter how many times the movie tells us she does. I get that they probably cast Swank first, but given that Kirshner is one of the few highlights of the movie, while Swank is one of its lowest lights, its the final piece of evidence that she was horribly miscast.
As for the reason I decided to watch the movie (or, at least, the reason I decided to watch the movie now, as opposed to waiting for it to come on TV or something), the Academy Award nominated cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond: it’s pretty solid. The movie projects the nostalgic image of 1940s Los Angeles, with rich blacks to enhance the noir mood. Basically, it’s the kind of cinematography you’d expect from a noir thriller, but certainly not a reason to actually watch this turkey.
I’ll say this for The Black Dahlia, while its a steaming pile of crap, laughably bad at times and disjointed and disorganised at others, its rarely ever boring. So… that’s something, I guess. De Palma gives it enough style and shock tactics to keep your attention, but when you give it that attention, you’re forced to realise that the whole thing is utterly ridiculous.