Movie Review: The Black Dahlia

By the time that “The Black Dahlia” finished, I couldn’t tell if Brian De Palma was paying tribute to the film noirs of the ‘40s or making fun of them. (That last line may or may not have been written by my boy Kevin Carr. It’s late, and I’m trying to forget everything associated with this movie as quickly as I can, but I’ll acknowledge that he said something along those lines as he – disgusted, like me – was leaving the theater.) Either way, the movie was filled with all of the trappings that have cluttered and undone any De Palma movie of recent memory. Yes, he’s done good work in his time on this rock (“Carrie,” “Blow Out,” and even “Scarface” looks better and better with each passing year), but have you seen “Snake Eyes”? No? Good, I just saved you two hours of your life. Spend them wisely. And with any hope, this review will save you two more hours of your life.

So here’s the deal, see: Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) is partners on the LAPD force with Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and they are the most high-profile cops in town, thanks to a well-publicized boxing match between the two. Lee’s got a sweet girl named Kay (Scarlett Johansson), and things get a little hairy when an old ghost of Lee’s is about to get paroled around the same time that a starlet named Betty Short (Mia Kirshner) is found brutally murdered. At first, Bucky wants nothing to do with the Short murder, instead intent on collaring rapist/thug that just beat an old woman to death, but Lee, with the help of the big-shot DA, coaxes Bucky into following the big prize. For Bucky, that big prize leads to extra time with Kay as Lee gets obsessed with the case, along with playtime for Bucky with rich, spoiled slut Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank). None of which, of course, leads him any closer to solving any of the crimes he’s investigating, though it does implicate him of withholding evidence and, accidentally or not, make him privy to things that he probably shouldn’t know about the people he trusts.

Yeah, that sounds like a James Ellroy story, doesn’t it? (It is, for the record.) The thugs are dirty, and the cops are even dirtier, right? The only problem is that this doesn’t carry a tenth of the heft that “L.A. Confidential” did, because that was made by a competent director and performed by exceptional actors. “Dahlia,” meanwhile, is all surface and no substance in the most literal way imaginable. Two of the three leads (Hartnett and Johansson) are, well, not good actors – superb eye candy, sure, but not actors – and the remaining thespians of any repute, like Eckhart and Swank, are left twisting in the wind like every other noteworthy actor has been in De Palma’s hands. Hell, even Michael freaking Bay directed Johansson better in “The Island” than De Palma does here. And don’t even get me started on what he does to Fiona Shaw, whom you all know as Aunt Petunia in the “Harry Potter” movies. She dies a small death with every line she utters. It’s tragic.

But we haven’t even gotten to the most infuriating part of the movie, which is De Palma’s senseless reliance on camera tricks in order to convince the moviegoer that he is an auteur, dammit. There’s a painful tracking shot that will make moviephiles squirm in their seats, along with a depth-perception trickery shot (again, props to Kevin Carr for putting my thoughts into words) that looks so forced that I’m surprised Eckhart didn’t beat the cameraman senseless after every take. But perhaps the most incongruous part of the movie was that they tried to convince the world that Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner look alike for plot purposes. Guess what, kids, they don’t. At all. Pretty girls, both of them. Look-a-likes, not in a million years. I did like the cameo from kd lang as the singer of the Cole Porter torch songs in the gay bar, though. That’s probably the best piece of casting the agent did on the entire movie.

Oh, GAWD, I just remembered the bit where Hartnett takes his girl and pulls the tablecloth off of the dinner table (which is filled with food, by the way), preparing to mount her right then and there on the table. Are you kidding me? Tell me anyone who does that, ever, anywhere in the world. So now you know why we thought they were taking the piss out of film noirs, not paying tribute to them. There are too many talented people involved with “The Black Dahlia” for it to end up this bad. And yet, here we are.

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)
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