Brian De Palma is no slouch when it comes to delivering stylish, captivating films that keep his audiences entertained and yearning for more. Of that, we can be certain. Scarface is quite possibly the second greatest gangster movie ever and The Untouchables was, to say the least, spectacular among modern westerns. De Palma’s latest offering, The Black Dahlia, falls short of his resounding legacy. It is an under articulated, long winded and tiresome attempt at telling the story of possibly the most famous unsolved murder mystery in Southern California history, and I don’t mean the O.J. Simpson trial.
Based on the fictitious book by James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia begins in Los Angeles in the late 1940’s telling the tale of two cops, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The unlikely combo are united by their pasts as boxers and hoisted up on a pedestal to become publicity monkeys for the LAPD, winning over the hearts of Los Angelinos in order to gain support for a bill that would give the PD a sizeable raise. After knocking the crap out of each other and becoming the heroes of the day, publicity whore Lee and the quiet boy scout Bucky team up as partners and hit the streets, catching felons left and right.
The other thing that they both catch is an eye for Blanchard’s young dame Kay (Scarlett Johansson), who is as Lee would say “always in the middle, but never between us.” We all know how that one usually works out, somewhere along the line Kay is bound to become a problem. But before the issue of Kay could become a point of tension, the two are thrust into the world of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) who has been brutally murdered. Lee and Bucky take the case, reluctantly leaving other criminals on the street in lieu of finding out what happened to Ms. Short.
And this is where De Palma’s film slams head first into a metaphorical brick wall. All of the sudden we are diverted from one clear plot line and given multiple complex stories which are so ill explained that it would give even the most attentive viewers a temporary case of ADD. Aaron Eckhart is devoid of his usual charisma and arrogance as Lee Blanchard. We watch as Lee slips quickly and inexplicably into the realm of obsessive over the Elizabeth Short murder for reasons which are left to the audience’s imagination, or in other words, they were left on the editing room floor next to the other parts of the film that were riveting.
Rather than staring aimlessly at photographs of the deceased like his partner, Josh Hartnett’s Bucky takes to actually investigating the murder. In doing so, he gets caught in a wicked love triangle between the afore mentioned Kay and a savvy bi-curious Aristocrat, played by the effortlessly alluring Hilary Swank. His escapades, while significantly sexier than those of his counterpart, are equally as confusing to the audience. The film attempts to do too much all at once, leaving it a over articulated, muddled mess.
While Hartnett’s performance is adequate, as are those around him, it all seems to be lost on the fact that the film’s plot drags its viewers through two hours of twists and turns only to leave them dosing off by the time the credits roll. It goes to show that you can’t win with the right team and the wrong game plan, at least not in cinema.
The saving grace of this film, if there is such a thing, is it’s overwhelming style. The film’s look and feel is well crafted, a fact that can be expected from a seasoned vet like De Palma, but just because the lighting is nearly perfect, and De Palma softens the focus around Scarlett Johansson’s face at all the right moments putting her classic beauty on display for the masses, that doesn’t mean the movie is good. Audience have come to expect production value from these types of films; what they need is a story that draws them in, keeps them intrigued, then shows them something they have never seen before, it is almost like a magic trick. But in that regard, The Black Dahlia is more of a disappearing act than anything else.