Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” is so complex and confident, so filled with long tracking shots, stylized slow-motion violence and film-noir homages, that you keep expecting it to add up to something.
In the end, alas, it’s not about much of anything. Based on James Ellroy’s novel, which fictionalized the grisly mid-1940s murder of a Los Angeles starlet, it keeps shifting gears and losing its way. De Palma gets distracted by staging an explosive fight sequence or setting up a family quarrel or showing just how unhinged a passionate couple can become.
In one over-the-top scene that suggests a Carol Burnett send up of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” two lovers sit down to dinner but quickly find their hunger overcome by lust. They paw at each other, crash into the table and shove the plates away, hurling a tasty-looking chicken to the floor.
If you’re wondering what the chicken could have done to deserve this, your sentiments are not where De Palma intended them to be. Or perhaps they are. It’s often hard to say who “The Black Dahlia” was made for — and what the filmmakers were thinking.
When k.d. lang suddenly turns up and sings “Love for Sale,” or the hero (Josh Hartnett) shoots up a Ming vase, a giant chandelier and other “pretty things” at a suspect’s mansion, the movie seems to be running off the tracks, and not in a good way. When the high-maintenance wife (Fiona Shaw) of the mansion’s owner turns hysterical and starts babbling about family secrets, the script descends into the kind of overheated melodrama that even the most brilliant actors can’t rescue.
The central narrative thread concerns a pair of cops, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett), who are investigating the killing of would-be actress Elizabeth Short (the perfectly cast Mia Kirshner). Her look-alike, Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), turns up and sets the plot off in another direction, while Blanchard’s relationship with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) starts to fall apart.
Several references are made to Paul Leni’s 1928 silent film, “The Man Who Laughs,” which deals with a character whose face is transformed into a hideous grin — just like the mutilated face of Short’s corpse. (In a related bit, Bleichert’s own grin is transformed when his front teeth are replaced after a fight.) At a screening of “The Man Who Laughs,” the frightened Lake holds hands with both cops.
The suggestion of a ménage a trois couldn’t be clearer, but it’s ultimately just another tease. While the screenplay by Josh Friedman (“War of the Worlds”) is packed with incident, it lacks the smooth narrative flow of Curtis Hanson’s excellent 1997 adaptation of Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential.”
Eckhart has his moments early in the film, but he’s wasted in an unplayable role. Hartnett comes up short at the grownups’ table. The same goes for Johansson, though Swank and Shaw enthusiastically connect with the campier aspects of the script. They appear to have been transported directly from a trashy 1940s Joan Crawford epic, and they’re obviously having a much better time than anyone else.