The Black Dahlia
2006Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Scarlet Johansson
t’s hard to pinpoint The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma’s aggressively convoluted exercise in neo-noir stylings and photographing Josh Harnett’s chest, so let’s try to narrow things down a bit. One thing the film certainly isn’t, for example, is a murder mystery. The shoddy reconstruction of the Black Dahlia murder is a convenient way to bookend a story in which everything and nothing happens all at once. Underground lesbian clubs, teeth-crunching boxing matches, some shady Chinatown shit going down between affluent fathers and daughters—it all gets ample screen time, and meanwhile the poor Dahlia is nowhere to be found. We do get to see her cheeks sliced through to the inside frame of her jaw, though, which is always a plus.
Elsewhere, the movie is disinterested in romance, which would be fine if it didn’t spend its first third establishing a sort of love triangle between its three principals (Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Scarlet Johansson) with a series of suggestive glances and flashes of nudity. It’s also not very enchanted with its women, who alternatively stir up trouble and whore themselves for power, but that may be a remnant from the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based (the other famous screen adaptation from one of his books is L.A. Confidential, and we won’t even go into the character that won Kim Basinger her Oscar). Then again, the only reason Hartnett seems to be in the movie is because he looks good wearing a bed sheet, so perhaps most of the characters here are in it for the exploitation.
In hindsight, there isn’t much definitive that can be said of the movie, which, come to think of it, is not a bad way to describe the experience of viewing it. The film is like a constant state of limbo, not quite boredom, where it remains watchable because the plot is so random that it could literally go anywhere. The chief story thread concerns a fledging friendship between two ’40s-era detectives, Bucky (Hartnett) and Leland (Eckhart), and Leland’s longtime girlfriend Kay (Johansson). The bond between the three never quite seems at risk of becoming sexual, although Bucky and Kay do exchange some worrisome mutual glances along the way. The Dahlia murder makes a recurring appearance (as do silly flashbacks recounting a test video while she was still alive), but the story is far too busy to take that as its focus. Backs are stabbed, trusts are betrayed, and the plot becomes so wildly nonsensical that De Palma’s overbearing noir outfitting begins to tell the story.
Not very well, mind you. The movie knows the sound and the aesthetic of noir but not the language, and the overwrought screenplay doesn’t help mute the film’s stylistic flamboyance. Bucky, simultaneously distant and overzealous, is an ill fit for an actor like Hartnett, who works better in more subtle roles (as in The Virgin Suicides). Of course, with his character’s nationality (“Germans. Good people. Hitler was a little excessive.”) and expressions of masculinity (“I don’t get modern art.”) defined by the writers with old-school clichés, it’s not as if the flailing star had much to work with here. Alongside the infinitely more charismatic Aaron Eckhart (and an unusually frigid Scarlett Johansson), the performance is another that highlights his awkward transition from B-list teen star to leading man.
De Palma, behind the camera for the first time in four years, hasn’t lost his predilection for sudden violence (Scarface) or blood-letting young women (Carrie), but as a storyteller, his sense of direction has long since departed. One of the most proficient architects of suspense of his era, De Palma is here reduced to flashy shots of gore and a story so completely unsure of itself that it tests the waters in every conceivable direction. (The director would also do well to replace his longtime editor Bill Pankow, who he first worked with on Dressed to Kill and a quarter-century later seems to have forgotten that his job involves cutting scenes.)
Nothing about The Black Dahlia is particularly offensive, but in the shadow of De Palma’s storied legacy, the movie is a depressing reminder that his generation of filmmakers has yet to find its contemporary equals. David Fincher was originally attached to direct, but even he seems a slight choice to balance the film’s overwhelming narrative with a revisionist noir style. Today, the closest we get to good noir is Brick and Hollywoodland, and even with the stage wide open, the industry doesn’t seem to have any like-minded visionaries lurking around the corner.
The Black Dahlia is playing in theatres across the country.