Saturday, September 30, 2006

"The Black Dahlia," dir. Brian De Palma (Oklahoma Gazette)

L.A. Convoluted

Being a great moviemaker doesn’t always mean being a great storyteller. Take Brian De Palma, whose best work comes when he doesn’t have to worry about making too much sense. But give him a big, juicy story to tell, and he winds up lost. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel and involving perhaps the most infamous unsolved murder in California history, “The Black Dahlia” ought to thrill and amaze. Sadly, it mainly just disappoints.

Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, the saga follows straight-arrow police officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), an ex-prizefighter who is paired up with another boxer-turned-cop, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The two become friends, but when Bucky meets Lee’s sultry girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), the three grow virtually inseparable.

Their lives are shattered the morning of Jan. 15, 1947, with a grisly discovery in a vacant lot downtown. The body of a young woman, Elizabeth Short, has been cut in two, disemboweled and drained of blood. The grotesque piece de résistance: the killer has slashed the mouth into a clownish grin. Lee and Bucky are assigned to investigate the death of the woman who is nicknamed “Black Dahlia” by the tabloids.

What follows is an orgy of incoherence. Lee suddenly obsesses over the case, while Bucky meets up with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a vampy Dahlia lookalike who trolls lesbian clubs. The femme fatale has an even more interesting family, particularly her Loony Tunes mother (Fiona Shaw) and naughty nymphet of a younger sister (Rachel Miner).

The deeper Bucky digs into the Dahlia mystery, the deeper the movie sinks into incomprehension. De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman are too enraptured by stylistic excess to bother with simplifying the novel’s dense plot. Amid the period detail and De Palma’s fluid camerawork, it is nearly impossible to catalog the mounting backstories of characters with whom we have only a glancing familiarity. This is no “L.A. Confidential,” much less “Chinatown.”

Mucking things further is wildly uneven acting. Hartnett is too much a blank-faced lightweight to generate much interest. Eckhart fares marginally better, but he looks positively Shakespearean next to Johansson’s vacuous turn.

Still, De Palma is incapable of making a movie that isn’t visually arresting, and he has a terrific collaborator in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The camera sweeps and soars with elegance, and De Palma is at the top of his game in a set piece that involves murder on a staircase. The director also revisits some favorite themes of his -- voyeurism, pornography and the like -- but they feel stranded, like jigsaw pieces to a puzzle that was forgotten long ago.

It’s a shame. You sense what “The Black Dahlia” could have been in scenes where Bucky watches old audition reels featuring a sad and pathetic Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). Macabre and mesmerizing, the images of this ghost woman are rife with spooky possibility. But then “The Black Dahlia” switches back to its absurdly complex story, and we’re back in a movie with more mysteries than clues.


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