Sunday 10 November 2013

Movie Review: The Black Dahlia (2006)

A laborious neo-noir film, The Black Dahlia aims for a mysterious, smoke-heavy mood but is severely undermined by inferior performances, lack of chemistry and an incomprehensible plot.

Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are two Los Angeles police officers in the mid-1940s. Both are former boxers who never quite made it to the top, and the police department squeezes some publicity and public support by staging a bout between them. They subsequently become partners and friends, both enjoying the company of Lee's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But for unclear reasons, Lee starts to get agitated when he learns that criminal Bobby DeWitt, a bank robber and Kay's former boyfriend, is about to be released from prison.

Los Angeles is gripped by the brutal murder of starlet Elizabeth Ann Short (Mia Kirshner), whose body is found carved in half, the blood drained from her torso, her organs missing, and her face mutilated. Short was involved in making underground porn films, and Bucky tracks down Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), one of her co-stars. Madeleine comes from a rich and influential family, and she becomes Bucky's lover in exchange for keeping her name out of the news. As he tries to uncover the murderer, Bucky eventually meets Madeleine's strange parents Emmett (John Kavanagh) and Ramona (Fiona Shaw), but the DeWitt case suddenly explodes and consumes Lee's life.

Based on the book by James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia aims to duplicate the success achieved by the 1997 adaptation of Ellroy's L.A. Confidential. But while director Brian De Palma does succeed in creating a grim, corrupt and depressed environment crawling with characters motivated by pure self-interest, that's as far as The Black Dahlia goes. After a tedious and ultimately meaningless intro focused on the irrelevant boxing showdown, the plot careens off a cliff and into swampy territory where everyone has an incredible secret to hide, and every surprise has to one-up the one that preceded it.

By the time The Black Dahlia reveals all its convoluted plot twists, every possible sordid sauce in the pantry has been consumed. The femme fatale, the porn movies, the blackmail plot, the deranged woman, the corrupt cop, the missing cash, the gruesome murder, the illegitimate child, hints of a threesome, and stronger hints of incest. But in a case of quantity overwhelming quality, the film jumps from one jumbled reveal to another with hardly any emotional impact, the plot clumsily bent out of shape rather than enhanced by the shocks.

The impenetrable narrative is further weighed down by a sub-par and uncharismatic cast, lacking chemistry and delivering lacklustre performances. Josh Hartnett is stiffer than a plank, speaking with a despondent mumble, his narration aiming for a dark vibe but sounding like bubbles from the bottom of the swimming pool. Aaron Eckhart goes a bit nuts early on, jumping from acting to overacting, for reasons that the movie chooses to hide for one of the many later twists. And Scarlett Johansson has too many stop-and-stare moments, her hesitant communication conveying uncertainty about the material rather than genuine immersion.

Hilary Swank does a bit better, getting into the spirit of the accumulating absurdities, her performance a combination of sultry seductiveness and a twinkle in the eye. Mia Kirshner is seen only on films within the film, mostly being auditioned for her porn flicks, and ironically she radiates more life and charisma than the other, living characters.

Too dense for its own good, The Black Dahlia tries to get by on an abundance of style but ultimately folds itself into a black hole.

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