The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia


Reviewed by: Chris

A James Ellroy neo-noir novel, a particularly brutal murder in Forties L.A., two hardened cops and two of the most beautiful actresses of today's screen. But if that influenced you to see Black Dahlia you might feel had. More obscure than L.A. Confidential and more art-house than Sin City, The Black Dahlia is Brian de Palma at his most perverse and stylistic as he goes out on a limb to make a movie that bucks all expectations.

Usually when we see a movie, a number of things might combine as we form an overall judgement - the story, the acting, the way it's put together, and the dialogue. Maybe we enjoy watching our favourite stars, or maybe we are influenced by how much effort we have to make (if it's a continental film). Occasionally, our initial perceptions are overturned, and this is what I experienced with The Black Dahlia.

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The Black Dahlia is an intensely visual experience. The opening scenes I found boring in the extreme. Muted, washed out, sepia tones conveyed a tediousness that wasn't enlivened by the snatched conversations that were too quick to follow. All my senses were deadened and I almost felt like walking out. Then the camera caught Scarlett Johansson in profile, her deep red lips challenging the monotony of all that had gone before. That flash of scarlet embedded itself in my brain, surfacing again a few scenes later as life returned to the spectacle - this time in the form of bright red blood. The lighting effects and leitmotivs continue throughout. At one point, as Johansson and her beau guess the truth, the scene is momentarily illuminated by a flash of normal bright lighting, but this quickly fades - as if the truth is too much to bear.

The film is based on a fictionalised account of a real event (not the incident itself). The audience is pushed further and further back from the 1940s as if we are viewing it through a smoke-covered screen and listening to it with ear-mufflers on. Reality is suppressed, a dim memory. We cannot see it like it was, we cannot understand it like it was, and what we are seeing is not even a version of the truth but a version of a version. This is a film where the plays on our senses become more fascinating than the story itself, not because the story isn't deeply intriguing, but because the director forces us to view it through a lens that uncompromisingly makes us look at style instead of substance. It's about filmmaking aesthetic and, love it or hate it, De Palma insists that you play his game rather than get involved in the considerable crime content.

The storyline itself concerns the real-life murder and disembowelment of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short and how the investigation affects two former boxers turned hard-boiled cops. Dwight (Josh Hartnett, from Sin City) and his partner Lee (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking) try to unravel a serpentine plot that takes them through the smuttier side of old Los Angeles. Ghosts from the past surface as Lee gets hooked on benzedrine. Scarlett Johansson, Lee's live-in bad-girl-gone-good, and Hilary Swank, a bisexual temptress with a rich dad and mad mom, between them pave the way to hell and heaven with seductive charms and it's hard to tell which one is femme fatale and which one is genuine (You find out at the end, but your brain will be working overtime by then to keep up, as loose ends are woven together with a speed that makes Hitchcock look positively geriatric).

Black Dahlia is De Palma at the height of his artistic auteurship, but his style will so annoy the average viewer that you should think carefully before going to see it.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2006
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Two cops hunt a killer in 1940s LA.
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Read more The Black Dahlia reviews:

Amber Wilkinson **1/2

Director: Brian De Palma

Writer: Josh Friedman, based on the book by James Ellroy

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Fiona Shaw, John Kavanagh, Troy Evans

Year: 2006

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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