Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia

I’m not sure exactly happened with The Black Dahlia but it’s like the recipe was there, it was on time and legible and whoever was in charge of whipping up the ingredients into something coherent, be it editor or producer or Brian DePalma himself, was simply having an off day. In telling the story of two hard-boiled LAPD detectives (Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett, both giving good performances that deserve a much better film) who are assigned to the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short (here played by Mia Kirshner in flashbacks), the filmmakers seem more intent on sidetracking into a useless love triangle between the two cops and a former prostitute (Scarlett Johannsson) as well as numerous political, high society and other cluttered subplot threads that don’t feel like they need to be there. Hartnett gets tangled up with a weird femme fatale (Hilary Swank trying on an accent that fails spectacularly) from a super rich and super shady aristocratic family and it’s here where the film, based on a fiction novel, tries its best to tell the made-up story of what really happened to this girl, kind of like that Johnny Depp Jack The Ripper film only nowhere near as gripping, atmospheric or well told of a story. There’s so much going on I just threw my hands up in frustration at one point and resigned myself to bailing on the story and simply spending most of the two hours playing I-Spy with all the familiar faces in the supporting cast, and it’s here I can say something truly positive about the film. I miss the days when big budget Hollywood flicks had epic, sprawling supporting casts full of awesome people on roll call, even if they’re only around for a swift cameo or couple cool quick scenes. Here we get appearances from many including Kevin Dunn, Mike Starr, Rose McGowan, Troy Evans, Richard Brake, Rachel Miner, Patrick Fischler, Gregg Henry, Ian McNeice, singer K.D. Lang, DePalma himself and more. The great British actress Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia in Harry Potter) almost saves the entire film with a deranged extended cameo as Swank’s deeply unstable mother, her performance is so intensely off the wall and bizarrely compelling she seems like she walked in from a David Lynch film, she’s basically the liveliest spark the film has to offer. There is one particular death scene that is also quite memorable and almost more gruesome than the Dahlia murder itself, you’ll know when you see it. I just couldn’t get wrapped up in this thing though, the story is all over the place, feels disingenuous at the core of its script and is just a giant mess, no other way to put it. Great cast though, at least there’s that.

-Nate Hill