The Black Dahlia

Postwar Los Angeles. The gilded decadence of the thirties is frayed at the edges, leaving a dry and tawdry husk. The the city is flooded with with returning vets who’ve seen too much war and the streets throb with their testosterone fueled energy. The usual allotment of young girls, who came to town to be the next Marilyn or Jayne wander the canyons, some sinking under the dead weight of broken dreams, others crawl back home to the midwest, debased and forever damaged. A very few make it.

And one lies dead in a field, cut in half with surgical precision. Her mouth has been sliced open from ear to ear. To this day, nobody knows who did it. The press calls her the Black Dahlia, and the mystery and brutality of her death have inspired myriad conspiracy theories.

This time and place has been the setting for such classic films as The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential. The Black Dahlia and last week’s Hollywoodland are the latest attempts to catch that particular lightning. The Black Dahlia has the advantage of an actual crime to serve as a centerpiece, as well as the terse prose of James Ellroy, who wrote L.A. Confidential. Both have great casts and decent budgets.

And both fail, and for much the same reasons. See the previous review for a specific examination of Hollywoodland. The Black Dahlia is, if anything, a bigger mess. The problem is lack of energy. The pace flags and the plot just lays there with nowhere to go. I don’t mind that it doesn’t make sense; The Big Sleep and L.A.Confidential don’t make sense either. But they quickly move past the plot holes and inconsistencies, cover them up with charming performances, stunning visuals, and attitude. The cast of The Black Dahlia is talented enough to do that but they aren’t allowed.

They are directed to act in this heightened 40’s style that’s dangerously close to camp. And in the case of Fiona Shaw, way past it. Josh Hartnett lacks the gravitas to be a 40’s detective. He’s not a bad actor; he’s just wrong for the part. Aaron Eckhart is a much better actor than this. Hilary Swank smolders as the spoiled daughter of a rich developer (There’s always at least one spoiled daughter in these things) in the film’s only decent performance. And Scarlett Johansen delivers her lines like a bored geometry teacher.

The script is a mess. Even the editing is bad.

Avoid this one and wait for the next attempt of Hollywood to visit its seedy past.

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