An array of talent is wasted on this muddled adaptation.
The Black Dahlia features a talented young cast, an accomplished director and a story from an acclaimed writer. The end result, unfortunately, is a mediocre movie. So what went wrong?
Based on James Ellroy’s acclaimed novel, which itself is loosely based on the grisly 1947 murder that captivated Hollywood, The Black Dahlia focuses on two detectives, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), as they investigate the infamous case. Nicknamed “Mr. Ice” and “Mr. Fire” for their respective boxing styles as well as their personalities, they each approach the case in their own way: Bleichert is impassive and reserved; Blanchard is intense and obsessive. Sandwiched between them is Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), a good girl with a dubious past.
The investigation leads them all into the darker corridors of post-war Los Angeles: drugs, corruption, organized crime and more. Bleichert becomes involved with a suspicious heiress (Hilary Swank), whose affluent family is wildly dysfunctional even by today’s standards; Blanchard veers toward insanity, turning to drugs as his obsessive search proves frustratingly fruitless. Clues slowly begin to surface, revealing a gathering storm that could consume them both.
Sounds promising, right? Not so fast…
The first half of the movie is achingly slow, as director Brian De Palma painstakingly endeavors to establish the myriad characters and plotlines. With so many details to cover, one wonders if perhaps Ellroy’s book is simply too complicated for film. As the film eventually begins to pick up steam, it picks up plenty of baggage in the process, leaving it bloated and incoherent. De Palma is famous for his wildly over-the-top flourishes in films like Scarface, but his penchant for the operatic betrays him in The Black Dahlia. The movie spirals out of control toward the end, going from intense to absurd and, finally, comical. De Palma’s desperate attempt to tie up every loose end in the third act ultimately creates far more confusion than closure.
A talented cast is spoiled by disappointing performances. Hilary Swank is oddly unconvincing as a sultry femme fatal. Add to that the fact that she’s supposed to be a dead-ringer for the Dahlia (depicted in black-and-white screen tests by the lovely Mia Kirshner), but bears virtually no resemblance to her.
Hartnett and Johansson are simply uninteresting. I’m always amazed when off-screen couples possess so little chemistry on-screen. It’s as if they were so concerned with hiding their budding real-life attraction that they couldn’t establish any when the cameras started rolling.
The movie certainly looks amazing. Old-school Los Angeles has always lent itself well to celluloid (see Chinatown and L.A. Confidential), and it turns out Bulgaria (the film was shot in Sofia) doubles nicely for the city. And De Palma populates it with plenty of pretty faces. Like the Dahlia herself, we’re left wondering what they might have accomplished if things hadn’t gotten so messed up.
What's on the Disc:
No commentary tracks or deleted scenes, just three short documentary featurettes:
Reality and Fiction: The Story of The Black Dahlia - Author James Ellroy and others discuss the real-life events behind the Elizabeth Short murder.
The Case File - A fairly standard behind-the-scenes "making of" doc.
The De Palma Touch Presented by Volkswagen - A look at the visual design of the film. This is the first time I've ever seen a DVD extra sponsored by a corporation. It's a new frontier in movie marketing.