07 January 2007

The Black Dahlia

I would consider Brian DePalma one of the great [contemporary] directors, just based on his proficiency and prolificacy, even though I'm not much of a fan. I think his directatorial style tends to be a little excessive and over-blown, while his particularly obnoxious manner of referencing film history smacks of pretension. (Remember the falling baby carriage in The Untouchables?) Don’t get me wrong here, he’s a competent and intelligent filmmaker -- he knows what he's doing but he never delivers. Mr. DePalma almost got me this time – for a minute (or more accurately an hour) it really felt like this was going to be the one. Instead, like The Aviator, it’s an example of that special variety of bad movie that can only be made by a great director.

At first DePalma seems to be getting everything right in terms of mood and character -- it’s the mystery that he can’t handle. “The Black Dahlia”, the name given by the media to a young aspiring actress brutally murdered in Hollywood during the 1930’s, does not even show up in the film until the third reel, and even then doesn’t come to dominate the narrative for nearly two reels more. Until then, DePalma provides the audience with a cool and gorgeously stylized take on ‘30s Los Angeles and its police force; he also develops an intriguing and complicated love triangle involving Sgt. Blanchard, a detective (Aaron Eckhardt); his wife (Scarlett Johansson); and his partner, Officer Bleichert (Josh Hartnett).

As the case of the Dahlia’s murder takes center stage, Johansson practically disappears from the film while Eckhardt and Hartnett rarely appear on-screen together again. The best part of the film, the bourgeoning romance, suddenly goes frustratingly unrealized and forgotten. Instead, we follow a muddied, convoluted yarn to its confusing and unsatisfying conclusion. Hilary Swank shows up for a turn as the femme fatale; it's a competent performance, particularly notable considering the flimsy material. Fiona Shaw, as her mother, provides some perhaps unintentional comic relief with scenery-chewing histrionics, but by the end of the film her performance is simply irritating and distracting. The film peaks too early and as a result feels too long. Too bad DePalma didn’t do what Hollywood did seventy years ago: forget about the Black Dahlia and just tell good love stories.

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