Tuesday, September 19, 2006
In Theaters: The Black Dahlia
THE BLACK DAHLIA has been getting some fairly withering reviews, which is a bit of a shame. Though not Brian De Palma's best (by which I mean it is not PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, though so few things are), it's not a bad film at all. Sleek, stylish and intricate, it manages a neat trick, giving a satisfying fictional answer to a real-life unsolved murder that, in all likelihood, will never be solved. It's not without its flaws, but it's more coherent than its critics make it out to be, and scarier than just about any film I've seen this year.
Adapted by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy, THE BLACK DAHLIA centers on the story of two police detectives, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). First meeting in 1947 during an Army-Navy riot, the two are later paired up for a boxing exhibition to raise support for a police bond issue and, soon after, made partners. Their first big case, a takedown of a local drug lord, happens to take place at the same time and in the same area as the discovery of a horribly mutilated corpse, soon identified as aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (played in flashbacks and audition footage by Mia Kirshner). Bleichert and Blanchard soon get on the case, the latter becoming gradually obsessed with the dead girl, hurting his relationship with live-in girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who seems to have an interest in Bucky as well. The investigation grows more and more complex, involving the family of a powerful landowner, the elder daughter (Hilary Swank) bearing an uncanny resemblance to Short, as well as corruption within the LAPD and L.A.'s surprisingly vibrant lesbian subculture (I've heard mumblings to the effect that this bit may be exaggerated, but any excuse to have K. D. Lang singing "Love For Sale" flanked by amorous showgirls is okay by me.)
De Palma is, for those who don't know, a stylist (and let's face it, at this point, people who don't even know what movies are have heard this.) The film is a pure noir homage, the kind of picture where everybody smokes, death scenes are elaborately beautiful, and the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place in one flash of revelation. Naturally, whenever a director focuses heavily on style, the critics drag out the "style over substance" stamp (I honestly think it's a Word macro), and from a viewer's perspective, too much visual flair can distract from a story, but I didn't think that happened here. The plot is complex, but at the end of it I think I worked things out- not wanting to spoil anything, I won't share my interpretation right now, but it's not as complicated as it seems (there are basically two major mysteries which briefly intersect.) Then again, I have Asperger's Syndrome, and one of the features of that is that you pick up on little details. So I think it's a case of all the necessary information being in the film, just not as clearly presented as it could be. I notice this a lot, and for future reference I'm calling it Avengers Syndrome. You'll find out why someday.
De Palma's stylized approach does undermine one part of the film, though. Unfortunately, it's the climactic revelation of just who did it- the performer making the confession was obviously instructed to play it up and go for old-movie-style melodrama, and the scene itself is so elaborate it becomes almost a joke. It's a curious decision, and there's also the last scene, which leaves at least one obvious question about what will happen next unanswered.
But I have to wonder if the style doesn't help more than it hurts. There's an utterly brilliant sequence where Bleichert, having hooked up with Liz's look-alike Madeline, is dragged into dinner with her appalling family. With a long tracking POV shot, we are shown an increasingly decadent, clearly dysfunctional and vaguely insane household, a venture into black comedy which not only serves as a break in the relentless seriousness of the mystery but foreshadows just how baffling things are going to get. We've seen this kind of sequence before, but never quite as audacious and absurd. De Palma also works a bit more subtly in a sequence showing the early morning discovery of the body, tracking from there to Bleichert and Blanchard's bust taking place on the other side of the block. I also appreciated a couple of scenes where Johansson is shot to look exactly like a technicolor movie idol. There's an ever-present sexuality in the film, ranging from subtly implied to out in the open.
I also have to pay a compliment to Hartnett here. I first remember seeing him in FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS, in which he seemed to have made the decision to play the character as suffering permanent laryngitis. I wrote him off at that point, only to be somewhat intrigued by his brief role in SIN CITY, and here I genuinely liked his performance. He holds his own with Eckhart, which is not easy, and the two make an excellent duo. I think the acting helps sell the film- the performances are rarely so broad as to break the reality, as fancy as the camerawork may get. But then I'm usually generous towards actors, as you might guess from a sampling of my reviews.
Honestly, I just think the damn thing holds together. It has an ominous, macabre atmosphere and a visual richness that is worth a lot in itself. Because the Black Dahlia case is unsolved, I feared any film about it, even a fictionalization, would be unsatisfying, either leaving it enigmatic or cheating somehow. But, perhaps since so much of the focus is on the fictional characters involved in her case, a faux solution seems like enough. This is a solid mystery that's not getting near enough credit.