The Black Dahlia

September, 2006, Mystery

Directed by:Brian De Palma

Starring:Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, and Rose McGowan

Hilary Swank, (Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby) needs career advice; she followed her first Oscar as Best Actress with a totally unconvincing performance as a femme fatale in The Affair of the Necklace, and her second statuette with yet another seductress effort in this turgid, nearly indecipherable adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel directed by Brian De Palma. Unfortunately, her miscasting is only one of many disastrous elements in this astoundingly dull movie by one of Hollywood’s most energetic and imaginative directors, responsible for such engaging films as Carrie and The Untouchables, gigantic duds like Bonfire of the Vanities and the lurid thrillers Body Double and Dressed to Kill.  His work is often slickly decadent, (Femme Fatale) but rarely boring. What happened here?

The material, for one thing, casting for another; Ellroy’s dark obsession with sex and violence, (forged from his own experiences as the product of a murdered mother and a sickly, dependent father) shaped his obsessive interest in an unsolved, mid-‘40’s Los Angles murder known as The Black Dahlia Case. Ellroy’s 1987 novel blends facts from that crime with his own take on L.A.’s post-war atmosphere of sex, illusion and violence in what turned out to be one of his first best sellers. Despite its complex set of characters, the novel seems to be an obvious choice of material for a director with DePalma’s fascination with kinky sex and the more arcane forms of human mayhem, so he dusted off a script written some time ago by screenwriter Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) and set to work with a cast including Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckhart along with the aforementioned Ms. Swank. 

Hartnett and Eckhart play ostensibly hard-bitten, possibly corrupt cops investigating the gruesome murder/dismemberment of Elizabeth Short, known post mortem as The Black Dahlia. In poking through the entrails of her pitifully short life, the detectives uncover Short’s career in the porn industry, the city’s lesbian underground and political corruption, all presided over by the Linscott family, whose daughter Madeline, (Swank) hops in and out of bed with half the cast. 

I’m giving nothing away about these characters to state that the most interesting of them is dead when introduced to the audience; as portrayed in still crime scene photos and a couple of filmed auditions, Toronto-born actress Mia Kirshner provides an intriguing mixture of vulnerability and baby-doll sexuality as the murder victim, but her all-too-brief appearance in this two-hour clunker represents its only redeeming quality.

Johansson, (playing Eckhart’s girlfriend in an excruciating imitation of Lana Turner) and Swank will probably survive their participation in this fiasco, but that may not be the case with Hartnett; blue of eye and square of jaw, this handsome but vacuous actor (Hollywood Homicide, Lucky Number Slevin) can’t allow many more disasters like this one on his resume. (Eckhart should be given a pass here because of the critical praise he garnered for his work in the satirical Thank You For Smoking).

While the set design, costuming and cinematography DePalma provides are all workmanlike, the director squanders the talents of his cast, especially the usually brilliant Fiona Shaw whose roles in My Left Foot and Mountains of the Moon nearly twenty years ago render her appearance as Swank’s murderously deranged mother simply inexplicable; only a director absurdly off the mark could have induced such a horribly laughable performance from such a highly regarded actress. No doubt about it; DePalma stepped right in it with this one; he needs to wipe off his directorial boots and move on, as should anyone tempted to see this dreck because of the talent associated with it.

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