There's a fascinating film to be made about Hollywood's grisliest unsolved murder. Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia isn't it. Aside from De Palma's multitude of minor blunders, there are several major ones, the most problematic being that the film deals only peripherally with the ritualistic butchering in question. The lion's share of Josh Friedman's adaptation concentrates on two boxers-turned-detectives, nicknamed "Mr. Fire" and "Mr. Ice," who may have been interesting characters in James Ellroy's novel, but are rendered dull and duller, respectively, by Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett. We know they are both haunted by the murder, but we're never given a reason why, because the script squeamishly refuses to wade into the tawdry waters of Elizabeth Short's desperate grab for stardom. It's Short's mysterious persona that has fed the public curiosity about the Black Dahlia for decades, yet she's seen only in recovered film footage, no greater than a subplot in this melodramatic love quadrangle between the detectives and two standard-issue femme fatales, played by Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. (Swank, presumably high on all the accolades, attempts a vampish aristocratic accent that seems vaguely ridiculous.) De Palma's last film, tellingly named Femme Fatale, previewed that he'd lost his grip on directing actors, and The Black Dahlia resoundingly confirms it. The director gains back some credibility with a decent production design, but nowhere near what it would take to redeem the unintelligible plot, not to mention the hackish reliance on clumsy snippets of flashback dialogue. Ironically, a correctly placed flashback would have helped things immensely, if De Palma had opened with the murder before burdening us with the banal detective backstory. Only when a fleetingly seen corpse finally shows up at the 30-minute mark does the viewer even remember what the film is about.
by Derek Armstrong review