The Black Dahlia
Reviewed in September 2006
Director: Brian De Palma. Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, John Kavanagh, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner, Jemima Rooper, Richard Brake, Victor McGuire, Patrick Fischler, Troy Evans, Gregg Henry, Anthony Russell, James Otis, Angus MacInnes, Rose McGowan, Ian McNeice, Stephanie L. Moore. Screenplay: Josh Friedman.

Photo © 2006 Universal Pictures
The screening I attended of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, at 12:55 in the afternoon on the Friday it opened, witnessed a lot of strange behavior. Not all of it was on the screen. I counted 19 people in the audience, including me. About 45 minutes in, a pair of them left. Less than 10 minutes later, another woman followed them. A centerpiece sequence at the Linscott family dinner table, obscene with money and perversity and various mutual rebukes, prompted laughter in the row behind me but a gasp of actual fright toward the right-hand aisle, and all of the popcorn- and candy-eaters stopped chomping at exactly the same moment, producing a weird, sudden hush. Then two more women left, with only 15 or 20 minutes left to go in the movie. One more guy, the sixth to bail, harrumphed loudly out of his seat, only to be caught on the carpeted stairs as De Palma's final frame proclaimed "The End." "No fair!" the man screamed; so determined was he to stomp out in protest, he was actually angry when the film beat him to the punch, and also a little astonished that the closing scene could possibly have been the closing scene. Meanwhile, a reverse but symmetrical trend to all these early exits soon emerged. I'm usually the last bugger in the cinema, drinking up the end credits in order to gauge the scale of the shoot, count the production units, comb the music credits, pore over which actors and producers demanded drivers and personal assistants and who didn't. At The Black Dahlia, though, six spectators stayed through to the bitter end, without rising from our chairs. The movie had cleaved up its audience into equal camps of vehement objectors, regular folks, and almost hypnotized stragglers, though I wouldn't say that we in the latter group remained because we had been enchanted or even especially impressed by what we saw. We just wanted to know what we saw, and whether other people saw what we did. Impromptu, staccato conversations flared up: Did you think that was funny or sad? Did you understand the end? I feel, truly, like I missed something. Are they kidding us with this film? How do you think you'll feel tomorrow?

I wouldn't know how to separate The Black Dahlia as a film from the entropy, enmity, and confused community it prompted in the audience. Disembowelment is a key motif within the film, but it's also an apt metaphor for what the film seems to do to itself, implicating its audience as restive witnesses or frustrated interventionists, like paramedics called to a scene they don't understand and can't easily access. De Palma, screenwriter Josh Friedman, the actors, and the visual and sound teams have taken what is obviously a complex and probably convoluted novel (by L.A. Confidential's James Ellroy) and have gutted the thing, strewing its bits and organs and springs right off the screen and into our laps. For all the cool virtuosity of the sets and the photography, there's an unmistakable rancor to the film, a bitterness that flows like lava from the surface of the images, encompassing moral outrage at the grotesque and still-unsolved murder that the movie documents, but also a sort of ferocious ambivalence about what movies are typically expected to do—take shape, elaborate a logic, find a groove, grow clearer, or else, in certain extreme cases, repudiate clarity in a way that won't be mistaken for carelessness or failure. Lots of movies resist these goals, or else just fall short of them. Robert Towne's anemic and tedious Ask the Dust is a handy, recent example of an L.A. period piece that simply isn't up to any of its own tasks. The Black Dahlia doesn't exist in the same universe as a blight like Ask the Dust, but it's hard to think of a movie that does share Dahlia's universe. At times the movie barely shares itself with itself: hermetic set-pieces obey all their own rules, and feel thinly connected to the dialogue scenes and expository passages that ostensibly link them together.

In its most promising moments, the film feels like a visual soup of ideas, served up hot and personal, the way David Lynch might have done with similar material, and yet this idiosyncratic collage is badly bonded, if at all, with the notable plottiness of the script and the callow efforts of the leads, who labor under the misapprehension that they've been hired to etch their characters as psychological entities—which, making matters worse, most of them do rather badly. Meanwhile, De Palma acknowledges these characters' stories and their tangled motivations only in principle, as a pretext for filming the real objects of his fancy: a bubble floating in a pool of blood; the bright rubbery whiteness of a vintage steering wheel; a necklace adorning a naked woman, its pearls hard and swollen like excited glands; an entire collection of gorgeously textured clothes in vibrant colors and patterns; a silhouetted murderer advancing toward a doomed man, in a shot that luxuriates in its own cheesiness. The resulting film is discordant and defiantly weird. In a year like this, with few good films and as yet no great ones, a singular muddle like The Black Dahlia is almost worthwhile for that very reason, if not also because some four or five moments are worth the whole price of admission. On the other hand, for this moviegoer, any real sense of satisfaction proved more and more elusive as the film unspooled. The Black Dahlia finally lacks even the kinetic verve that another De Palma film like Femme Fatale, with its insane but inventive narcissism, manages to wring from its analogous contrast of an event-packed script and free-floating, fetishistic direction. A De Palma film that obfuscates its story and neuters its performers—Mission: Impossible offers another apropos example—usually ignites a compensatory blaze of energy. But The Black Dahlia doesn't work like that, or not very often. Several sequences are outright dull, proffering precious little to patient story-followers or to gluttonous thrill-seekers. It's hard to know what kind of viewer to be, and there's not enough percentage in any of the available options.

It's a strange thing, this lurking sense of stinginess underlying a film that seems, even from the outset, to give give give so profusely. Mere minutes into The Black Dahlia, the audience has already been handed a recreation of 1946 Los Angeles that is instantly addictive without being obtrusive; a street riot; a police brawl; an LAPD corruption scheme; the build-up to a boxing match between the two cop protagonists, Josh Hartnett's Bucky and Aaron Eckhart's Lee, and the well-photographed bout itself; the moody opening movements of Mark Isham's score; Scarlett Johansson, costumed and tailored for maximum chestiness, waving around a cigarette with full femme fatale potential; Hartnett's sober and tough-talking voiceover, earnestly poached if not quite hard-boiled. This kind of cinematic smorgasbord should feel like the entrée into something grand, even if the movie doesn't wind up delivering, but a major problem with The Black Dahlia is that it so quickly feels airy and disconnected, despite the muscular palette and the confident sluicing of the edits and dolly shots. The film looks and feels like one with grand designs and surging emotions, but the crests all collapse before they reach the beach. For instance, Bucky and Lee were pounding each other in the ring before I fully grasped the stakes of their match or the dim, surrounding context of upheaval and spin-control within the police force. The poor sound mix doesn't help the hasty screenplay: all of the actors' voices sound high and disembodied, as if what they're saying is floating in a thin atmosphere above the images, rather that echoing out of them. De Palma's directorial style compounds this impression. He films all the early conversations as if he's impatient to get on to something else, or as if the heathery fibers of Johansson's suits and sweaters were more transfixing to him than anything she's saying or doing.

Sadly, Hartnett, Eckhart, and Johansson quickly repel any incentive we might feel to bail them out, to listen extra closely. Everything about Dahlia's setup points toward the long, pained lives that these characters have already lived before we meet them—as cops, as hookers, as beleaguered caretakers, as men and women who've been around and done a lot and seen even more. Yet none of the necessary vibe of weary experience emanates from these actors. A lot of people groused last year when the film version of Rent stuck by its original Broadway cast, thereby hustling its twentysomething characters well into their next decade, but for my money, the effect is far more ruinous when bright young things like Hartnett and Johansson get strewn around and stranded in adult stories. I'm leery of indulging too many explicit comparsions to Curtis Hanson's magisterial realization of L.A. Confidential, from which De Palma's film differs so profoundly in both impact and intent, but the haunted gravitas of Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and James Cromwell, the quiet and sober survivalism of Kim Basinger, the metastasized cynicism inside David Strathairn, Danny DeVito, and Ron Rifkin are what an Ellroy movie needs (and not just because they call the relative greenness of Guy Pearce and Simon Baker into such crucial relief). Lacking this kind of heft, or much of anything behind their eyes, Hartnett gamely impersonates his part without being able to plausibly live it, and Johansson is nearly catastrophic: she plays her scenes like someone giving a book report that she thought was due tomorrow. You can watch all the 1940s noirs in the world, and a reputable pro like Johansson probably did, but there's no compensating for the life experience and graduated understanding that a Vera Farmiga or a Dina Korzun or an Embeth Davidtz might have brought to such a watchful, literally battle-scarred figure as Kay Lake. Is there something about actors over 35 that Hollywood feels impelled to protect us from? Then again, while Aaron Eckhart is something of a bonafide at 38 years old, even he riffs at his character instead of channeling or connecting to him. Hilary Swank shows up midfilm as a shady bisexual sex-bomb, and though it's at least exciting to see one of the leads cast against type, she shares the film's own bad habit of stitching interesting but disparate elements into an unconvincing whole—that imposingly angular face, those gangly and unadroit limbs, a wiry helmet of fake hair, a vocal experiment that sounds like a Czech actress playing Cate Blanchett playing Katharine Hepburn. None of these people, neither the wan characters nor the flailing cast, offer any helpful portal into Ellroy's story or De Palma's ideas.

However, say this for The Black Dahlia, and say it loudly: if neither its narrative spine nor its central performances prove very hospitable, these disappointments leave you breathlessly unprepared for the moments that pop to life with such iconoclastic authority. Beyond this director's perennial stylishness, The Black Dahlia punctuates itself with enough mad experiments and savvy montage that for a few exquisite stretches, everything that hasn't worked feels almost immaterial. There's even a sense, in this story about a needling, gnawing death, that the glories of The Black Dahlia work better as unexpected islands than they might have within a more unified, consistent film. Already famous is the long sequence, about half an hour into the movie, that begins with a woman in extreme long shot, running and shrieking about some frightful, invisible discovery she has made in an arid field of grass behind a disreputable-looking city block. In a lofty crane shot, the camera curtly abandons this woman, preferring to settle on Hartnett and Eckhart while they scout an apartment building where an "inbred Okie shitkicker" named Junior Nash has been beating and raping young black girls. Just when they're hoping to nab their guy, some total unknown in a snazzily checked suit starts pumping bullets into their car. As you might expect in Ellroy, the various planes of danger and misdeed that are superimposed in this sequence—the raving woman, the hunted criminal, the surprise assailant, the mutilated corpse in that grassy field—have more to do with each other than we initially suspect. What is more immediately exceptional is De Palma's brio in fusing these story-points together while wedging their implications and their unequal trajectories apart. Who cares that the film spends the next half-hour failing to live up to this set-piece, give or take one luridly hilarious summit beside a coroner's table? (Q: "Is it okay to smoke, Doc?" A: "She won't mind.") You can buy a lot of movie tickets without hearing such a deliciously succinct line of dialogue as "Lee stomps," or without seeing a major if ultimately fumbled plotline like Eckhart's Benzedrine addiction get introduced in a single, beautifully placed cutaway. kd lang selling "Love for Sale" in a 1946 lesbian palace wipes the floor with Rufus Wainwright's gratuitous warble in The Aviator, and when a prop newspaper blares the pugilistic, nearly nonsensical headline GIRL TORTURE SLAYING VICTIM IDENTIFIED BY EXAMINER, FBI, you note its kinship with the grinding, arrhythmic, sensationalized syntax of De Palma's own movie, and you doubt that anything is a coincidence.

Plus, finally, despite its miscast leads, The Black Dahlia yields two superior performances where it doesn't necessarily need them—ample evidence that a sharp tremor on the periphery can be much more exciting than the carefully managed serenity of a star. In one case, Fiona Shaw simply decides that she's in a Genet play instead of a hamstrung neo-noir, and De Palma sparks like mad to her own fearless dementia. As Ramona Linscott, the pinched and addled mother of Swank's lascivious prowler, Shaw appears in two scenes, one of them the most uncomfortable dinner that a gentleman caller has ever attended in the history of the movies. (Eraserhead is suddenly a silver medalist). The other I can't possibly describe, both out of care for The Black Dahlia's putative mysteries and out of my own bafflement as to where I would even begin. Suffice it to say that in both scenes, Shaw cracks the movie open like she's breaking the shell of a lobster, and then she gobbles the movie, and then she spits it back out. Quite simply, The Black Dahlia is a different movie after each occasion when this actress has her way with it, and if the other actors look slightly terrified by her bravely calibrated derangement, De Palma leaps on the chance to wooze up the Steadicam, to spike the editing rhythms. Shaw makes William Hurt in A History of Violence look utterly obedient and eminently predictable.

Comparably electrifying but different in every other respect is the limpid sorcery of Mia Kirshner in the titular role of Elizabeth Short, rendered here as a gutsy and talented actress who found her only droplet of fame by having her body drained of blood, mauled of its organs, and tossed into a ditch. Kirshner appears doubly mediated, in several films within the film of The Black Dahlia. Most of these are excavated reels of Elizabeth's auditions for nameless, probably unimpressive movies. One, crucially, is a dankly coercive smut film in which she exchanged caresses with another homeless substarlet. She understandably wells with tears as the unseen producer-photographer drops a fanged dildo into the shot. Already, De Palma shows a canny metaphysical intelligence in his editing of all this footage. At first, he embeds it carefully within a well-defined scene of the LAPD poring over Elizabeth's past in a communal screening room. Later, Hartnett's Bucky is a rapt and solitary audience, and the montage subtly prohibits us from placing when or how or with whom he is watching. The implication is that everywhere and always Bucky is screening these images, almost fantasizing them, as he digs around the case—and of course, this is exactly what De Palma is also doing, going through the motions of his day job while the ghostly phantom of Elizabeth Short loops and loops in his mind, both with and without his consent. The effect is striking, but much more so because Kirshner opts away from trivializing Elizabeth, or reducing her to the eventual, awful circumstances of her death. Flirting with the offscreen auteur (voiced, natch, by De Palma), firmly in control of her strong but willowy gestures, doling out accents and flattery and coy demurrals, staring into the camera with eyes that are unmistakably ice-blue even in grayscale footage, Kirshner is uncanny. She humanizes Elizabeth even as she projects a Platonic ideal of her. (As audition scenes go, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. is also, just as surely and suddenly, a silver medalist.) Kirshner makes you understand the obsession that Hartnett and Eckhart frequently profess without properly articulating. Her Elizabeth auditions for her own afterlife, existing within the discrete reality of each of her scenes, but pleading from within these soured images for her own weird form of posthumous justice. She demands that her death be taken seriously in a city that pipelines unreality.

Kirshner and Shaw are structural antonyms within The Black Dahlia: the poignancy of the dead vs. the tortured knowledge of the living, the downtrodden epicenter of the fuss vs. the outermost point in the upper echelon of a totally different caste. The Black Dahlia shouldn't be forgiven for everything it mucks up, for everything that feels merely lifeless instead of potently undead, derivative instead of cleverly quoted. Still, in the space around these actresses, the air feels alive, the enslavement of characters and filmmakers alike to this sordid and fact-based memory feels urgent, understandable. The film puts you tediously in mind of other, better films, including the other, better film that The Black Dahlia could so easily have been with more mature casting and less flagging clarity of vision. But the turnarounds that this crippled exercise makes into fleeting, thrilling spectacle are sometimes lightning-quick, and well worth staying around for. The ending, when it evetually comes, is a perfect case in point. Once more, L.A. Confidential looms like a humiliating Olympus, as yet another shaken cop ferrets his way into a derelict housing project, amidst low-hanging clouds of mist that enjoy their very own key-lighting. The screenplay erupts with echoing bits of reprised dialogue and heavy-handed allusions to characters we've met before, and still nothing matters, nothing adds up or makes any sense or furnishes any reason for us to care. But then, after a single scene change, just when the newly enlightened cop seems primed to apprehend the baddies, he points his gun not at the people but at the production design. Ming vases explode into shards. Statues die. An enormous chandelier is pulverized. We find ourselves in Laura territory, in a film that couldn't previously have touched Laura with a fifty-foot pole, much less a .38 pistol. The enameled arrogance of the rich comes resoundingly into focus, and their lewd, parodic laments on their own behalf have rarely sounded funnier, or sadder. It isn't quite the ending The Black Dahlia needs, or the one it's been building to, and it isn't even the real ending: we still have a taunting and desperate seduction, a shock-cut, and a limp, dewy reconciliation to go, all of which I will kindly ignore. Despite all of these, the climax retains its inchoate power, throwing you off balance, lingering for days. From the glittering heap of a failed film rises the zesty aftertaste of something unexpectedly special. C+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond

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