So I finally caught up with Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia. I read the book a few years ago and liked it well enough. It's not my favorite James Ellroy book, but I was interested in how DePalma was going to tackle the material. When people talk about DePalma, you'll often hear them use the word "frustrating" in the same sentence. Many times there's so much to like (about half of Snake Eyes works) but DePalma is a director who deals in excess and it tends to get the better of him in his lesser efforts. I read plenty of reviews using that very same word -- "frustrating" -- when discussing Dahlia and I went into this movie the same way I do every other DePalma effort: hoping everybody else is wrong. Sometimes it's true (I love-love-loved 2002's Femme Fatale), sometimes it's not (sigh ... Mission To Mars).
After finishing the movie, I can honestly say that "frustrating" just doesn't fit the bill ... because the movie just flat-out sucks. Save for some pretty photography (for which it was nominated), almost nothing in this movie works. I read the book and I still had a hard time following the screenplay. DePalma jumps from one episode to the next trying to make metaphorical points but he forgets that we don't know or care enough about his characters to make such involved connections. This is a complex film to be sure, but it's intellect is dumbed down by crappy acting, a muddy script and overwrought direction.
Normally, a movie can get by with this film's premise: a woman is murdered and mutilated. The hunt for the killer begins! But the audience has no idea what story they're supposed to care about. Is it Josh Hartnett's relationship with Aaron Eckhart? Is it his relationship with Scarlett Johansson? Is it the murder? The characters aren't very interesting so you're just kind of waiting around for something real to happen. The murder of Elizabeth Short (the "Dahlia") is tucked in the back, an almost after-thought to everything else for a good while. This was fine in the book because the reader is captivated by all the other going-ons (and there was even more going on in the book) and by the time the murder investigation really took center stage, there was the allure that there may be dots to connect. L.A. Confidential (another Ellroy adaptation) was successful by making the smaller conflicts immediate and seductively string them together in the last forty minutes, revealing the bigger picture. In DePalma's film, however, when the Dahlia investigation takes center stage, you couldn't care less. Yet you keep watching because you can't believe how poorly conceived and executed the entire production is.
Halfway through the movie I remembered where it was all heading and I couldn't wait to see the ten-car pile-up that would be the film's climax. And thank the heavens, DePalma delivers in a very big way. The performances in this movie go from atrocious to "Is this really happening?" and not even two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank comes off clean. This is a bad, bad movie from a great director. But with Brian Depalma, I've learned to live with it.
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Dre writes 5 times a week for Film.com, covering Movies and DVD with his Floridian flare. E-mail him!