A review of “Black Dahlia” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for extreme violence and some language

Run Time: 2 hours, 1 minute

 

 

Brian De Palma returns to the screen with a vengeance, wreaking melodramatic havoc with a grisly tale of L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murder.

Corrupt cops, desperate starlets and shady motives make up this oddly contemporary pulp-fiction homage to the black-and-white crime thrillers of the 1940s and 50s.

Cut to a pair of decorated L.A. cops (Josh Hartnett as Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Aaron Eckhart as Sgt. Lee Blanchard) who are high on life; giddy with the power of partnership and the love of a beautiful woman. Their ostensibly neat romantic triangle is a snaky stack of masked emotions involving ex-call girl Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), formerly rescued by and living with Blanchard yet torn between the two men.

From its opening frames “Dahlia” is a thorny thicket of murky notions and rapid-fire sentiments that bewilders. Cryptic names and locations are dropped with abandon, contributing to a narrative labyrinth that tangles and tantalizes.

The mood goes pitch black when a Hollywood ingénue (Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short) is found brutally murdered, cut from ear to ear and carefully dismembered.

Bleichert and Blanchard investigate in earnest noir fashion, drawn deep into a complex web of lies and deceit. Nothing and no one is as it seems. The plot thickens with the appearance of key witness Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a fatally flawed femme fatale who clearly wants more than a toss in the hay.

De Palma has been experimenting with noir for decades, his trademark edge a ripe conglomeration of Hitchcock, Kubrick and vintage De Palma himself. Much of the action feels freshly hewn, offering the surreal feel of watching the studio dailies.

Yet there’s something irresistible about this convoluted puzzler, a bracing who-dunnit-ness that has its female leads to thank for its sleazy fancy. Swank and Kirshner chew it up as drop-dead look-alikes with a bloody bond, sparkling with sinister sex appeal. Johansson is every inch the reformed bad girl in pearls and twin-sets that emphasize her assets but barely cloak her dusky past.

Best of show goes to a pair of classic De Palma set pieces; a sadistic and shadowy stairwell scene and a peculiar family dinner at the Linscotts – with maniacal mom Fiona Shaw in fine form -- that alone is worth the price of admission.

Harnett is an unfortunate choice for the hunky hero; he works a tux like nobody’s business but his good looks barely cover for his bland delivery and one-note voice-over. Eckhart is cagey and aggressive and far more intriguing.

Slow to start but ultimately worth the ride.