The Dahlia is a Little Dull
There is one major problem with "The Black Dahlia" it's that it is style over substance. We get brilliant sets, authentic costumes and great cinematography but it is all of this, the look, which ends up dominating the movie. And as such the story which is an adaptation of James Ellroy's novel ends up not only playing second fiddle but also becoming a chore to follow. Such a chore that when it gets to the truly interesting part of the movie which is the fictitious investigation into the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short you've kind of lost interest because you've given up following what is happening early on.
Former boxers Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett - Wicker Park) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart - The Missing) end up both working the beat as LA cops and finding themselves getting promotions to detectives when they agree to a one off boxing match. Partnered up Bucky and Lee becomes friends along with Lee's girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson), although Kay makes it clear to Bucky she is also interested in him. When the mutilated body of wannabee actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered both Bucky and Lee investigate with Lee becoming obsessed in trying to solve the mystery of her murder, whilst Bucky finds his investigations leading him to Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) the daughter of a wealthy businessman who just happens to not only look a little like the deceased but had met her.
Now the thing people need to remember about "The Black Dahlia" is that it is an adaptation of James Ellroy's novel which in turn used the true story of the gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short as the basis for a work of fiction. As such for those who think this will be some movie which goes over the facts and comes up with a possible conclusion to the unsolved murder will be disappointed. In fact the main emphasis of the story is on the friendship between former boxers and now police officers Bucky and Lee as they end up becoming partners and best friends along with Lee's lady friend Kay.
As such the first third of "The Black Dahlia" focuses on the connection between these characters, a boxing match between Bucky and Lee which got them both promoted plus the relationship to Kay. And we soon discover that whilst Lee and Kay share a house there is nothing physical about their relationships and Kay makes it clear she is interested in Bucky. We also get back stories which include how Lee and Kay came to be together, the gangster who Lee put away and in doing so basically winning Kay and we also learn about Bucky's past and his father. But the thing is that it all feels like padding, not really going anywhere and taking too long to establish this trio of characters.
Even when the body of Elizabeth Short is discovered this focus on the way these three interact is still the main focus. And at this point you sort of come to understand that "The Black Dahlia" is going to be about these people and little else. So whilst we have Lee and Bucky both investigating the murder of Short and in Bucky's case finding himself in a world of lesbianism and porn it still all comes back to the relationship with Kay in the middle wanting Bucky but his determination to stay loyal to his friend.
Now in fairness we do get mystery, we get the mystery surrounding why Lee is so determined to solve the case whilst we also have Bucky's relationship with socialite Madeleine Linscott. And the seeds of a really great mystery are there except by the time the story focuses in on what actually happened to Elizabeth Scott there is a good chance you will have stopped following. And it's because it spends so long building up the trio of characters that you stop trying to follow the clues and evidence.
But the biggest problem for "The Black Dahlia" is that it becomes style over substance. There is so much attention to detail from the look, the atmosphere, the camera work to the hairstyles and fashion that it quickly becomes a movie which seems more intent on creating a visual experience that a mentally stimulating one. And there is no denying that director Brian De Palma has created one of the best looking, most stylish film noirs cinema has ever seen but it ends up to the detriment of the story. But at the same time the attempt to create something very visual sometimes goes wrong with scenes which should be dark and dramatic, such as Bucky meeting Madeleine's family, ending up being a little too quirky and comical.
As such the performances from its stars which on top of the trio of Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson also include Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner and Mike Starr end up being all about the visual. From the way Hartnett as Bucky moves to Eckhart's violent streak as Lee it is all about what you see on the surface rather than who the characters are and what drives them. It is the same with the women because Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner's performances come down to being authentic of the period in how they look and talk rather than for who they are.
What this all boils down to is that visually "The Black Dahlia" looks brilliant but get beyond that and it is all a bit of a mess as it becomes hard work to follow and ends up being all about the style over the substance.