The Trouble With Dahlia
Dir: Brian De Palma
With a good director and good actors, The Black Dahlia could have been a good movie — alas, neither of those were present here and what we get is merely passable.
This is another typical Brian De Palma film — lots of flare, little substance, much confusion. It takes a lot of skill and patience to bring a James Ellroy novel to the screen, as evidenced by Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential; De Palma does not have skill or patience. Hanson specifically set out in Confidential (as documented in the supplementary material on the DVD) to create a 1950s L.A. that would look like the present on screen — by that I mean, the movie plays out as if it is taking place in the present; there isn’t an acknowledgement by the filmmakers that it’s ‘the past.’ In this way the viewer becomes completely immersed in the film, caught up in the plot and characters. The movie is simply the story of what happened.
De Palma decided to take the other route with Black Dahlia. The film is a pastiche of film-noir, using the same sort of visual style, language and over-wrought dramatization characteristic of those films; what this does is prevent the viewer from really committing emotionally or intellectually, because at every turn there’s something — whether it be an awkwardly timed and paced POV shot, a spastic exhortation from one of the characters or a meticulously plotted set-piece death scene — to pull you out and remind you you’re watching Brian De Palma make a Hollywood-Golden-Era-style film-noir.
Josh Friedman’s script is actually fairly solid, but, unfortunately, under De Palma’s direction, it becomes extremely convoluted and the actors all look lost — not sure how seriously they’re supposed to be taking things. Josh Hartnett (Officer ‘Bucky’ Bleigchert) fits right in because he always looks lost anyway, but he doesn’t do anything to even remotely help salvage the film. Aaron Eckhart is entirely forgettable as Sgt. Leland Blanchard, he being responsible for the majority of the spastic exhortations. Scarlett Johansson is completely miscast as Blanchard’s charming and dutiful girlfriend Kay Lake; she really only seems to excel in roles as a mopey teenager, and I don’t find her believable yet when she’s trying to play grown-up. Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott) saunters around in gowns, affects a southern accent and tries to look vampy, with mixed results.
The only stand-out among the cast is Mia Kirshner as the Dahlia herself, murder victim Elizabeth Short. It’s too bad she gets so little screen time (to wit, she doesn’t even get billing in the official Black Dahlia marketing); we only see her in what are in essence ‘flashbacks’ — old screen tests that Bleigchert uncovers during the investigation. A lot is actually known about the real Elizabeth Short, and Kirshner puts it to good use in crafting the character — a young New England girl with stars in her eyes, intelligent and crafty, seductive yet naive, needing to latch on to anything and everything after the death of her fiancee and estrangement from her family. The fact that we can get all this in the only ten minutes or so she’s in the film is a huge testament to Kirshner’s wasted talent here, and a nice round criticism of the complete failure of the entire rest of the cast.
As a friend whom I saw the movie with remarked: “Well, at least De Palma’s consistent.” Yes, consistently mediocre. He should simply not be allowed to make movies any more. Probably the most disappointing thing about Dahlia was that it could have been good if done by the right people.
If only I were a studio head. 03971semaj