dir: Brian De Palma
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There is a place for trash in this world, especially in the world of cinema. No-one has made more of a career making entertaining and trashy films than De Palma. He’s never been able to shake the Alfred Hitchcock-wannabe moniker long enough to establish himself as a decent, respectable director. The closest he’s come was with The Untouchables, and that was a long time ago.
No, De Palma is a trashy director whose movies work best when he lets his dirty side come to the fore. For all his attempts at respectability, it is films like Carrie, Scarface, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and the gargantuan bomb that was Bonfire of the Vanities that he will be remembered for. Not for this one.
Considering his love of sleaze and lurid subject matter, it is a double shame that The Black Dahlia fails as badly as it does. You would think the pairing of De Palma and the James Ellroy novel fictionalising the details of the real Black Dahlia case, overflowing with depravity, corruption, madness and death as it is would be a marriage made in heaven. But De Palma drops the ball so comprehensively in the second half of the film that you have to wonder whether this one was strictly for the money.
It doesn’t help the film to be compared to LA Confidential, which covers similar ground in a far more entertaining fashion. The stories are very similar, as are most of Ellroy’s novels sharing their similar dynamics: two violent cops of varying degrees of corruptness try to solve two concurrent crimes whilst in the grip of some obsession having to do with women. There are depraved rich people, there are the shenanigans of the early powerbrokers of Hollywood, and scenes of great viciousness and goriness. The difference is that only one of these films is worth the celluloid it is printed on.
To be fair, the first part of the film works and is interesting. The most substantial problems are that Josh Harnett, playing one of the main characters, has the emotional range of a turnip, and that the film is wrapped up in the crappiest way possible with scenes of exposition following scenes of more leaden exposition capping it all off.
Our two protagonists are introduced to us in the strongest part of the film, being the start. Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are set up by the District Attorney’s office in a boxing match for a publicity stunt. They are billed as Fire and Ice, two polar opposites brought together by fate. Bucky is meant to throw the fight and secure his career. They become the stars of the department after Bucky sacrifices his two front teeth.
Bucky and Lee become fast friends and partners, and are brought even closer together by Lee’s partner Kay (Scarlett Johansson), who seems sweet and innocent, but like everyone in the film, harbours dark secrets. They become entrenched in a (non-sexual) three way relationship where everything seems perfect until the real world intrudes.
In fact, now that I think about it, there weren’t any characters in the film who didn’t harbour terrible, dark secrets from the past.
The body of an aspiring actress is found, horribly mutilated behind a crime scene where Lee and Bucky start shooting people for reasons we don’t really understand yet.
Once Elizabeth Short’s (Mia Kirshner) body is found, the film lurches off in increasingly ridiculous directions. The Lee character becomes completely useless, and the Bucky character, called upon to start exhibiting new emotions, becomes increasingly painful to watch as he a) tries to solve her murder, b) tries to resolve his feelings towards Kay, c) tries to resolve his feelings towards Lee, d) tries to catch another killer, e) tries to figure out life, the universe and everything. It is too much for an actor with Josh Hartnett’s limitations, bless his beady little eyes.
From there the complications between the various plot threads and the ways the various characters in the film are connected to each other becomes not just hard to follow but also irritating. Once the film gets to the explanation phase, as in, spending the last twenty or so minutes of the film explaining who killed whom and why, it actively becomes one of the worst big budget flicks of the year.
In a scene where Hartnett is meant to be crying over learning some harsh truths, it provoked laughter in the audience I saw it with, and rightly so. Not only is the acting and direction off, but the whole way the latter half of the film is put together calls into question the abilities of the people involved. It is crappy hackwork more suited to R-rated skin flicks than a major release for which audiences are expected to pay full price.
Hillary Swank is introduced as some sort of depraved little rich girl who knew the Black Dahlia and might be involved in her death, and starts well enough as a snobby bisexual vamp who likes slumming it, but, damn, does she end up a ridiculous caricature of a character. The actual solution to everything that has occurred during the film is deeply unsatisfying and will provoke more shrugs of boredom than any other kind of emotion.
One of the few bright spots in the film involves trying to bring the Dahlia herself to life by showing reels of screen tests where her (character’s) lack of acting ability but abundance of heart shines through the screen. When you contrast the Elizabeth Short scenes, which come off as vintage De Palma, with the other scenes throughout the film, especially some of Johansson’s weaker scenes towards the end, you’d think they were from different films, one being significantly better than the other.
It is rare to start off enjoying a film and to end up actively hating it. Most films tread a mediocre, safe path and finish on it too. It takes a special degree of skill to turn your audience against your own film over the course of two hours, but De Palma succeeds, with help from the lazy actors and the excruciating script. Easily one of the most disappointing films of the year.
Avoid at all costs.
2 times my cat could have crapped out a better script than this out of 10
“Hearty fare breeds hearty people, haute cuisine breeds degenerates.” – The Black Dahlia