The Black Dahlia (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
If there's a defining metaphor in the works of novelist James Ellroy, it's the prostitutes who populate his L.A. Confidential. Recruited because of their resemblance to 1940s screen goddesses, the women were an attempt to give men a chance to live the fantasy, even as they submitted to their basest urges. That's Ellroy's world: a Hollywood where the glossy surface illusion hides all the ugliest parts of human nature.
This is why there may be no worse choice to direct a James Ellroy adaptation than Brian DePalma. Over a 40-year career behind the camera, DePalma has built a reputation as the master of a slick image. So here, DePalma takes on the lurid underworld of Ellroy's fiction and turns it into a flourishy exercise in high-camp pseudo-noir.
The events are based on a true-life 1947 Los Angeles murder case involving the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a beautiful woman. Warrant cops Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) happen to be on the scene when the body of Elizabeth Short quickly dubbed "The Black Dahlia" in the press is discovered, and are temporarily re-assigned to homicide. Bleichert soon realizes that Blanchard's obsession with victimized young women could complicate their investigation. And once he finds that Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), the daughter of a millionaire construction tycoon, could be involved in the case, things get even more complicated.
For a little while, it looks as though Josh Friedman's radically condensed adapted screenplay is going to hit all the important notes. The film opens with the staged boxing match between Bleichert and Blanchard that drums up publicity for a voter bond measure for police funding, touching on the politicized world of law enforcement. Aspiring actress Elizabeth (Mia Kirshner) appears as cops watch her in screen test reels and a stag film, a heartbreaking image of yet another wounded girl with a crushed dream. In fits and starts, there's a bubbling undercurrent of messy, creepy reality.
DePalma, however, isn't about to let anyone forget that this is his movie. The first discovery of the body is part of an extended, showy crane shot; Bleichert's introduction to the Linscott family becomes, for no apparent reason, a single take from Bleichert's point of view. It's sometimes entertaining, sometimes viscerally effective. But does it have anything to do with the story?
Sadly, it kinda does, because nearly everything that's remotely interesting about The Black Dahlia ultimately comes from its stylized moments. Swank takes her femme fatale performance over the top, back under and then over the top again, creating a character of only vaguely recognizable humanity. Hartnett's still not a deft enough actor to convey the complexity of lost innocence as Bleichert descends into hell ... and he's never really asked to.
In a way, you can't really blame DePalma for at least trying not to be bored. Fundamentally, Ellroy's Black Dahlia could not be less about figuring out who actually killed Elizabeth Short; this is, after all, a notoriously unsolved true-crime we're dealing with. Yet for its last hour, this screenplay plods forward on plot-machine auto-pilot.
Every bit of subtext vanishes, leaving a conclusion full of shrieking confessions and unsatisfying resolution. That's the irony of The Black Dahlia: In an effort not to leave a tedious mess in his wake, DePalma re-applies all the Hollywood artifice James Ellroy spent his career trying to strip away.