Thursday, August 27, 2009

The real mystery is how this movie turned out so bad

The Black Dahlia (2005)
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner and Hilary Swank
Director: Brian De Palma
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A publicity-hungry police detective (Eckhart) arranges to have himself and his younger partner (Hartnett) assigned to the grisly murder of a would-be actress (Kirshner). As one detective starts to mysteriously come unglued, the other uncovers not only dark secrets relating to the dead actress, but to his partner as well.

The Black Dahlia is almost completely devoid of focus. The script moves randomly from plot to subplot to barely relevant stuff, with the Black Dahlia murder being relegated to just above a minor tangent among a whole tangle of plots and subplots. The style of the film also swings widely between filming styles--at some points, it's heavy-handedly apeing the filming styles of the 1930s and 40s (complete with obligatory soft focus on the leading ladies), at others he goes for an almost documentary style detachment, and then there's the incredibly annoying sequence when the camera suddenly takes the POV of what Hartnett's character is seeing, thus putting the audience in his shoes. Not only is this a pointless break in style, it is very badly done.

And then there's the editing. There isn't a single shot in the film that lasts more than ten seconds and all quick edits and jumping around with the camera angles gets tiresome very fast.

To make this already weak film as bad as possible, it is further burdened by an ending that is is completely and totally botched, with the solution to the Black Dahlia killing being completely nonsensical and the other Big Revelations not quite fitting with the rest of the story either.

It's a shame this movie is such a mess, because many of the actors give some great performances that are in step with the film noir/crime drama movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Aaron Eckhart turns in a great performance as a crooked cop (I'm not spoiling anything here... the Eckhart character is a standard for the kind of movie being emulated) whose life has come to orbit around the one decent thing he's done in his life... the rescue of a young woman from a life prostitution (Johansson). It's a shame his performance and character are undermined by the awful script that introduces a late-movie twist that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

And then there's the hero of the tale, Hartnett's good-hearted, honest cop who is irrevokably tainted by the evil he encounters in the course of this film. His character is in genre, except that he spends too much time crying; it's okay for him to be sensitive, caring, and concerned with justice, but he shouldn't be getting weepy all the time. His character is, unfortunately, also undermined by the botched ending in the film and a particularly stupid scene where he shoots up the home of Swank's character.

Someone couldn’t make up their mind what they were doing with this movie. Whatever potential it may have had is ruined by an inconsistent visual tone and a script that is messy, unfocused and internally inconsistent. It's a film that deserved to bomb and it's one that isn't worth the 2+ hours it's going to suck away from your life. It's one of those incompetently made films that falls in a zone of mediocrity that leaves it with no worthwhile aspect.

In fact, the only Brian De Palma film worse than this one is his 2006 follow-up, Redacted. It's even more halfbaked than this one.

1 comment:

  1. I can't help but agree. Not that I was expecting great things from it, but I'm fascinated by the Dahlia story and it could have made such a good film.
    I also think that Hartnett, as is the way now, was way too young as well as way too prone to crying.
    Thought the three girls were all good, and saved the day whenever they were around. The supposed Elizabeth Short audition reels were the best parts. And the revelation of the ending, though certainly ludicrous as you say, I did find eerie and gripping, despite everything.
    The real problems were a) the slavish and totally failed attempt to emulate the structure, look, sound and style of LA Confidential, and
    b) Brian De Palma. This man even has to piss sitting down. He can't direct anything.
    And how stupid to suggest that mainstream audiences would have gone to see an old silent movie in the forties.