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Latest DePalma film falls short of its potential
Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia steadily exercises several sorts of low-grade fascination without ever becoming genuinely interesting.
The story of the still-unsolved murder of Betty Short (aka “the Black Dahlia") in Los Angeles in 1947 would seem to be tailor-made for a filmmaker who has shown distinctive gifts for both baroque horror (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) and period-piece crime stories (The Untouchables). Be that as it may, this most recent cinematic foray into “Black Dahlia” territory is based on the James Ellroy novel of the same name, and that means the film focuses more on two cops who are obsessed with the case than on the famous case itself.
Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are LAPD detectives involved in the investigation. The two are roommates and sometimes opponents in local boxing rings, and both are getting serious attention from Blanchard’s archly stylish girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson).
The Black Dahlia herself is present only as a corpse and as a pointedly pathetic figure (played by Mia Kirshner) in a few brief black-and-white sequences (some shabby-looking “screen tests” and a porno reel) DePalma has concocted for the film. A perversely deceptive Black Dahlia lookalike (Hilary Swank) from a wealthy and, as it turns out, corrupt family plays a larger and more telling role, in Bleichert’s part of the story in particular.
The cumulative focus on Bleichert’s romances and his conflicted partnership with Blanchard makes him into some semblance of a point-of-view character for the story as a whole. But neither Hartnett’s modest performance nor Josh Friedman’s convoluted screenplay generate any real depth or insight in all that.
DePalma’s interpolation of the fictional “screen tests” and some actual excerpts from the 1928 silent-movie and horror-film classic, The Man Who Laughs, very nearly reduces the film to something like the morbid musings of a cinephile auteur. And that too adds a layer of flimsy fascination to this extensively uneven movie.