Sunday, January 07, 2007

Revised Black Dahlia Review

The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Mira Kirshner, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Fiona Kay, John Kavanagh

Brian De Palma's stint in film noir -- a stint that reached its height with the release of crime classic 'Scarface' in 1983 -- continues over twenty years later with this adaptation of James Ellroy's novel, 'The Black Dahlia'. In this typically 40's crime drama, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are two L.A. cops on the hunt for the brutal killer of aspiring Hollywood actress Elizabeth Short. Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) and his partner Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) are drawn into the investigation, but when Blanchard begins to obsess over the case, Bleichert is left to pursue it alone, meeting along the way what can only be described as a very against-type Hilary Swank as Madeleine, the mysterious, sumptuous daughter of Hollywood tycoon Emmet Linscott. But as Blanchard grows ever more unstable, Bucky is drawn closer to his wife Kay, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Although 'The Black Dahlia' is based on a real-life murder, the actual murder was never solved, and therefore the characters in the story are entirely a work of fiction. Presumably this is why many of the characters suffer from a lack of authenticity, bar the dahlia herself, a mesmeric performance from Mia Kirshner. Shown in snippets of archives, Kirshner's Short is the most human and believable of Dahlia's weird and wonderful concoction, enveloping the translucent desperation of an aspiring dreamer with stunning resonance. With the flick of her eyelash, the hint of a seductive pout, you can't help but be drawn to her multi-faceted monologues. The ability of Kirshner to keep you guessing is extraordinary, particularly evident in a screen test in which she launches into a bad impersonation of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, and then proceeds to look gazingly into the eyes of the camera, a wounded soul, as she utters the words "Even if I have to lie, or cheat, or steal".

Her mysterious visionary captures the audience as much as the mystery of the Dahlia is supposed to grip us, but in truth, Kirshner generates most of the intrigue of this mystery herself, as the narrative of the film gets bogged down in dull, meaningless exchanges, and random unaffecting sub-plots. It is Hartnett that leads the audience amidst a typhoon of somewhat ridiculous characters that are either underplayed (Swank), overplayed (Shaw), or simply badly acted (Johansson). De Palma watches the level of interest in his plotline rapidly descend, while Hartnett struggles bravely against a tired and at times painful script.

As things hot up, and Dahlia's love triangle subplot is ended once and for all, the pieces of the puzzle do finally begin to merge, or rather, splat together. But while De Palma likes to keep us dangling on a string for much of the film -- a string that's very very very fine I'd like to add -- he wastes no time in wrapping the film up into a frayed and bundled mess. Most disappointing is a finale that reeks of bad TV Whodunits, racing towards a silly conclusion like 'Murder, She Wrote' on acid (and I LOVE Murder, She Wrote). Dahlia may be gloriously stupid, but I can't help but wonder that this could have been a classic, had a bigger effort been made on creating a convincing enigma than there was on iconising its title star.

Grade: C

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