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Movie Review:The Black Dahlia

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If the trailers led you to believe The Black Dahlia is an edgy and bleak mystery, they lied. A murder mystery does casually wonder about the plot in the way a cockroach crawls about a pile of garbage, but the film has a different topic altogether; director Brian De Palma’s massive ego.

It would be difficult to pin the blame of this mess on anyone other than De Palma. Like most of his films, an even remotely coherent story takes a back seat to "masterful" tracking shots and his largely derivative sense of style. As the film progresses, I kept thinking about De Palma patting himself on the back and saying to himself, "Wow, Steven and George and Francis are really gonna dig this!"

Like the recently released Hollywoodland, the filmmakers make the mistake of placing emphasis on a fictional detective story instead of the featured real-life death. In Hollywoodland, this turned a potential great film into a merely good one. In The Black Dahlia, it leads to a mess as ugly and hard to look at as the mutilated corpse of its central victim.

Set in early 1950’s Los Angeles, we follow Officer Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as he moves listlessly from one crime scene to the next, trying to solve the gruesome torture and murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a would be actress who was so promiscuous they consider the whole U.S. military a suspect. Her murder was real, but it might as well have been imaginary, as the film lacks anything that vaguely resembles insight or purpose.

Attempting to describe the plot in greater detail would be an exercise in masochism that I haven’t been up for since my last philosophy course. It would imply it was around for some reason other than to justify its own existence. Elementary film rules such as consistency, structure, pacing, economy of characters, and even 2nd grade logic are ignored or disregarded altogether. Characters zip in and out of sight seemingly at random, conversations about bit players are mumbled so quickly that the screenwriter would have trouble following along. At the end, we get not one but two Deus Ex Machina monologues that might have shed light on things if they had any serious connection to the previous 100 minutes of story.

The cast looks way out of their element, modern stars having to slip into the skins of archetypes vastly unsuitable for them. Hartnett resembles the guy who sold me my shoes at the mall more than he does a hard boiled police detective. As Hartnett’s partner, Aaron Eckhart proves the tough guy role isn’t for everyone, and if he is a champion boxer, so am I. Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank manage not to completely embarrass themselves as the love interest, but neither seems to be there for any reason other than they are recognizable. The only cast member who comes out ahead is Kirshner, whose ultra brief scenes made for an awesome trailer (check out her even better role in TV’s 24).

De Palma has never been a great filmmaker. He has had some bright spots such as Carrie, Scarface (criminally overrated, pun intended), The Untouchables, and Casualties of War, but has made some serious clunkers, such as Snake Eyes or Femme Fatale. But at least his bad films usually had a few memorable moments and atmosphere, with the camerawork occasionally impressing instead of distracting. Not here; The Black Dahlia is a whole lot of gory nonsense, and easily one of the worst films of the year.

0.5 out of 5

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About James Frazier

  • A 24 obsession may be the best one around. My peak: writing a near 30 page paper on the topic when the minimum was 5.

    Thanks for the kind words! I had high hopes for this film, too. The trailer was really cool and I thought that perhaps there could be some sort of relevant story about loss and shattered dreams, but no, just a bunch of garbage.

  • Dawn

    No, James, I am the most obsessed 24 fan in the Midwest. Is Ohio considered the Midwest? Well, anyway, that was a well-written review, although I am sad that one more film that I was looking forward to seeing would be a waste of my time.