The Black Dahlia

De Palma… Ellroy… what could possibly go wrong? If only I knew…

The H-Bomb: It’s been a while since I’ve written a Bilger, and this time I’m going to try something a little different. For past Bilge reviews, I would target movies like “s. Darko” or “Wages of Shit” because I knew going in they would suck. So when they lived down to my expectations, I would rip into them accordingly. This time, I am setting my cross-hairs on something that I was highly anticipating. A film, that when it first came out in 2006, I was actually excited to see, that I just knew would be all kinds of awesome: an adaptation of my all time favorite crime novel, James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia”.

Directed by the sometimes great Brian De Palma, I was stoked through the fucking roof for this movie. I didn’t even let the early negative buzz get me down. I was first in line on opening day, expecting an exceptional film, and cut to two hours later… I slowly trudged out of the theater with my head hung low, that awful feeling of crushing disappointment welling up inside me… “The Black Dahlia” was exceptional, all right… it was exceptionally shitty! No, I wasn’t disappointed in the sense that I expected a great film and only got an okay or mediocre one. No sir, I expected a great film and got a truly terrible one! I’m talking one-of-the-worst-movies-of-the-last-decade terrible! There’s no other way to put it, “The Black Dahlia” FUCKING SUCKED!!!

Even today, I am amazed and baffled at how a movie that seemed like such a guaranteed home-run ended up striking out completely. I actually feel anger from all the wasted potential. Had I run into Brian De Palma in the theater parking lot, it would’ve taken every ounce of my being to keep myself from grabbing him by his big, fat, bulbous head and pile-driving him into the fucking pavement! Ellroy’s novel is a masterpiece, how could the film have turned out to be such a Goddamn travesty?! Well, since this now actually is a bargain bin title, and in an effort to confront and exorcise my own demons on the topic, I shall re-examine this mutilated, mangled corpse of a motion picture, and solve the mystery of how it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.

Now, my attempt to summarize this cluster-fuck of a plot should give you an idea of just how jumbled it is. “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are two ex-boxers turned Warrants cops in 1940’s post-war Los Angeles. Blanchard is living with Kay (Scarlett Johansson), an ex-hooker who lives in fear of being tracked down by her pimp/ex-boyfriend Bobby Dewitt, who is about to be released from prison. Kay, for some reason, has a chaste relationship with Lee, and has taken a liking to Bucky (Love Triangle Alert!!!). Lee and Bucky are collaring a perp one day when a young, raven haired woman with starlet looks is found brutally murdered in a vacant lot nearby. Her name was Elizabeth Short, or as legend dubbed her, The Black Dahlia.

Since the LAPD needs every swingin’ dick they got in order to close the case quickly (snicker), Bucky and Lee are temporarily reassigned to help with the investigation. Bucky’s probing into the aspiring actress’s life leads him through L.A.’s seedy underground and eventually to Madeline Prescott (Hilary Swank), a spoiled rich bitch from a wacko family who’s a dead ringer for the Dahlia, and, as we find out, was her lesbian lover. Lee, meanwhile, has become so obsessed with the Dahlia, for reasons that are never explained, that he has withdrawn completely from Kay and is about to go right over the edge.

Okay, I’ll stop there plot wise. Partly for spoilers, but mainly because if I tried to cover every subplot, side character, and plot strand, I would be here all fucking day. Suffice to say there are many subplots, side characters, and plot strands, criss-crossing and going every which way. Some somewhat interesting, others not in the slightest. Some relating to the Dahlia, others having nothing to do with her at all. They all (sort of) tie up in the end, in the clumsiest way imaginable, but by that time the audience is either so astonishingly confused or so terminally bored that it really makes no difference to anyone.

As far as the dense, multi-million layered plot goes, yes, it’s taken largely from Ellroy’s book, the keyword here being BOOK. In a book, especially one around 500 pages, you have wiggle room to meander. In a film, not so much. Take “L.A. Confidential” for example, another film from an Ellroy novel. That film streamlined the plot of the book in order to make it coherent in a movie form. Yes, that film has an intricate plot, as well as separate story threads, but they weave together in a way that makes the film interesting and focused. In contrast, the way the story unfolds in “The Black Dahlia” feels scatter-shot and completely unfocused.

It doesn’t help that tonally this movie is all over the fucking map. I mean, Christ on rubber crutches, I don’t think Brian De Palma even had the foggiest flippin’ idea of what he wanted this movie to be. At times it plays like a pulpy, hard boiled detective story, at other times, it’s like an over-the-top melodrama bordering on absurdist black comedy (or flat out self-parody), and at other times it plays like the kind of overly stylized Hitchcock homage that De Palma is most (in)famous for. He has the Master’s elaborate camera tricks down, but none of his subtle wit. His direction is just as all-over-the-place as the convoluted script, and only scrambles the film up into an even bigger mess than it already is. Never mind that De Palma also fails to build any suspense in climax, create any intrigue in the mystery, or develop any interest in the characters. I won’t even bring up the movie’s overwrought attempts at drama, which are far more laughable than anything in “The Room” (yeah, I just went there).

But the thing that really sinks this stink bomb, even more so than the script or the direction, is the casting. Holy-fucking-hand-grenades-jammed-up-my-pasty-white-ass, what in the hell was dear Brian snorting when he picked the actors to fill these roles? Josh Hartnett as an ex-boxer turned detective?! You’re fuckin’ joking, right? I mean, for fuck’s sake, look at him! How old is he? Twelve? He looks like he just stepped out of a high school production of “Guys and Dolls”! Forget solving the Dahlia murder, kid, don’t you have homework to do? Then there’s Scarlett Johansson as the would be vixen Kay. Like Hartnett, she is way too young to be playing the used up ex-hooker that she’s supposed to be, and even worse, she brings about as much life to her character as a block of wood. In fact, I’m just gonna say what I think of Johansson as an actress, in all of her films: She is overrated! There, I said it! Moving on…

Aaron Eckhart does fine as Lee (at least he actually looks like a grown man), but his abrupt fixation with the Dahlia comes completely out of nowhere, and he’s written out of the movie about midway through… oh darn, did I spoil that? Tough shit! As for Mia Kirshner, who plays the Dahlia in audition footage that the detectives find… she’s pretty terrific. As the doomed would-be actress, she actually conveys a sense of sadness and tragedy, and brings the only genuine emotion to be found in this nearly unwatchable fiasco. She could have almost salvaged it, had only her role been larger.

But, as far as all the acting goes, I’ve saved the very worst for last, and given that this is the wretched poop storm that it is, the very worst translates into absolutely God awful. This is a rotten performance for the ages. One that will go down in history for being the numero uno, spit-in-the-face insult to the craft of acting. Ms. Hilary Swank, come get your shit covered Razzie! Never mind that she ain’t exactly Femme Fatale material, her turn is beyond horrendous… it’s embarrassing to the point of inducing suicide. Every line delivery, every inflection is overdone and artificial, and that voice… that fucking, fucking voice… what was that? Was she just trying to sound like a vampy seductress? Or was she attempting some kind of foreign accent? I can’t fucking tell! All I can say is this is easily the worst performance I have ever seen from a two time Oscar winner. Sometimes trying to cooly underplay it, sometimes going cartoonishly overboard, she is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with this film.

Throw on top of all that an unwarranted cameo by k.d. lang, and you got a film that is truly fucked six ways from Sunday. In all seriousness, though, what burns me worse than a lit cigarette to the ball sack is that “The Black Dahlia” could’ve… no, wait… should’ve been not just a good film, but a great one. Sadly, screenwriter Josh Friedman was given great source material that he had not a bloody clue what to do with, and neither did De Palma, and together they whipped up a muddled mess that didn‘t know what it wanted to be or why, that was more often than not incoherent, and mostly boring to boot. The Black Dahlia’s case is one of the great unsolved mysteries of American history, and both it, and James Ellroy’s fictionalized take on it, deserved much, much better. What a fuckin’ shame.


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