Black Dahlia marks the return of Brian De Palma to his the genre that made him famous. I know quite a few people that were waiting for this film in hopes that it would mark his return to greatness.
You will have to keep waiting. While full of colour and style, Dahlia gets blogged down by a poor script and bad pacing.
The film, based on the critically acclaimed James Elroy novel of the same name, looks at the the true life murder of Elizabeth Short, a would be actress whose body was found brutally violated.
Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) are a couple of cops that are made partners after competing in a boxing match for charity. The two have some swell times, forming a slightly awkward threesome along with Lee’s girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who both men come to love. After a shoot-out with some undesirables, Blanchard and Bleichert come across the grisly crime scene where the body of Elizabeth Short has been discovered, touching off a series of complicated events involving (but not limited to): obsession, desperate starlets, the amorality of Hollywood, abundant murder, the destruction of idealism, pretty costumes, hotels that rent by the hour, entrails and evisceration, a perversely dysfunctional family, poorly constructed buildings, more pretty costumes, a scary clown painting, and--of course--lesbians.
Elroy’s work is generally filled with lots of sub plots and back story. In the case of L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson joined writer Brian Hegleland and was successful taking the complex work of Ellroy and making a script that told the story without overwhelming the audience…or running three hours.
In the case of the Black Dahlia, Josh Friedman, whose only previous screenplay was War of the Worlds for Steven Spielberg, failed to translate the novel to the screen. Much of the first hour is focused on back-story. And the actual case does not really come front and center until the last half hour, at which time the film takes off at breakneck speeds to try to reach it’s conclusion before time runs out. At the climax, the over-acting is thick enough to walk on. The script overloads us with detail, yet often fails to explain things clearly.
The cast does the best they can with what they are given. Aaron Eckhart spends much of the movie being either manic or cranky….or a combination of both. Josh Hartnett, fresh off the outstanding Lucky Number Slevin, continues to grow into the role of leading man, but even he is made overly wooden at times, having to spend more time reacting to things around him than actually doing anything.
Scarlett Johansson is pretty enough and has a few opportunities to express emotions, but even those are limited to concern, anguish and longing (is longing an emotion?)
Hilary Swank is entertaining enough as the token femme fatale. I must confess it was a little strange seeing her in a dress.....it was also a little strange seeing her out of her dress; good for her for keeping herself in great shape. In all seriousness, Swank does a good job, but then she really is not called on to do a whole lot.
If it sounds like I am being overly harsh, perhaps I am. The film does have its good points. De Palma has created a film that is visually stunning, and the sets and costumes evoke 40’s Hollywood in all its glamour (you would never guess it was filmed in Bulgaria).
Perhaps I am just frustrated because I can see what Black Dahlia could have been, instead of what it ended up being.