I wish I could have been at the premiere of “The Black Dahlia.” Not to have reveled in its entrance into Hollywood, but rather to have seen director Brian De Palma’s exuberant grin at the end of the film contrasting the audience’s look of confusion, anger and embarrassment.
For a guy who has been riding his fame since 1983 when he directed “Scarface,” De Palma has had a pretty sad post-fame career. His style has grown in ways most directors his age wish they could also boast, but aside from “The Untouchables,” the guy is yet to be truly praised for an overall great film. Stylistically, “The Black Dahlia” is on par with some of the best films in the past five years. When it comes to making a coherent and gripping two-hour movie, however, De Palma is as empty as a school when Michael Jackson shows up.
“The Black Dahlia” is based on the notorious unsolved 1940s case involving a beautiful young actress whose entrance into Hollywood started with a smile- carved across her face right before she was bisected. De Palma’s first mistake was not writing his own take on the murder but instead trying to adapt noir author James Ellroy’s novel about two cops who take on the case. After several rough sex scenes and an unnecessary Josh Hartnett booty shot, the plot ultimately unravels the case, but not without having a few audience members walk out from pure boredom.
Hartnett, still enjoying his praise from “Lucky Number Slevin,” takes on the hero role as the saner of the two cops. The murdered girl eventually becomes more than just a case and a body as her face alone sends Hartnett into a bleak world of corruption and pure insanity. Unfortunately, the role is a bit too emotionally complicated for Hartnett, who looks more like a rookie than ever. With Hilary Swank adding to the mess as a seductress rather than a tomboy, everything feels quite ridiculous and unfitting. It also doesn’t help that they look as lost as we are when it comes to the story they’re supposed to be telling.
As each scene passes, you become more confused and annoyed each time Hartnett finds a miniscule and meaningless clue that moves the plot nowhere. It takes De Palma 90 minutes to make several uninteresting scenes with an abundance of characters coalesce not only into absurdity, but an almost entirely spoken explanation of the Dahlia’s murder. Using a theater style of storytelling with heaps of dialogue only works when you have actors as brilliant as Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman consuming the screen. Instead, it felt more like the cast of “The Black Dahlia” thought the film was a joke and acting anything like the 1940s would have spoiled the fun.
Filmmaking should never be this embarrassing, and filmmakers should never force their audiences to take notes to keep up with a poorly acted story.
Aside from telling an extremely dull and over-the-top murder case, De Palma uses his stylish direction to keep you awake and still wanting to see some sort of ending.
Random extreme close-ups, a creative first-person point-of-view camera and sound effects sent from God himself all give a discomforting sense of realism that for short periods put you in De Palma’s unique 1940s style. At least he hasn’t lost all of his magic yet.
Unfortunately, “The Black Dahlia” offers no more than the experience of living within De Palma’s cold, sinister world for two hours.
Your brain doesn’t deserve such incoherent torture. Whether it’s the terribly unfit cast, fatal flaw of attempting to adapt a novel or the film’s screenplay from hell, “The Black Dahlia” will forever be as infamous as its subject matter.
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