I once read in a magazine that the perception of beauty on the part of the beholder is largely dependent upon the visual symmetry in what they're beholding. If I'm remembering it correctly, the article cited Denzel Washington (among a few other famous faces) as a face in nearly perfect balance and, thus, considered exceptionally attractive. Now the vast majority of people, civilian and celebrity alike, do not have completely symmetrical faces. But this doesn't mean they aren't beautiful. It's just that their beauty is less commonly agreed upon. It's lopsided, if you will.
Every time I've attempted to write about The Black Dahlia, "lopsided" kept forcing its way into the text. For all of this word's maddening insistence on being part of the write-up, it remains an infuriatingly vague descriptor unless it's tacked on to every other remark. And so it shall be.
The Black Dahlia gets my vote for "Best Confounding Picture" of the year. It's certainly not the "Best Picture" in a more general sense. It's difficult to watch and even more difficult to write about. But for moviegoers who thrive on searching conversations after screenings, for those who want to eke out more complicated ideas about what they've just watched, it's a must-see. For moviegoers who are content to react with directional thumbs: move along. This is not the movie you're looking for.
The asymmetry of The Black Dahlia isn't immediately noticeable. Like the famous book upon which it's based, the film begins with a veritable orgy of back-story –it's expositional and plotty enough for three or four movies. Given how long we wait for any mention of the Dahlia herself, we have every reason to suspect that the movie will continue to feed us information at this breakneck speed, faster than we can process all the character names and motivations. Put in its very simplest form this movie is about two cops investigating the murder of a young unemployed actress. But the plot isn't simple at all. As soon as all of the characters are introduced, the movie seems to stop and any forward momentum in plotting is based entirely on backtracking. Either I couldn't entirely follow it (possible) or, aside from a couple of key sequences, most all of the important story details take place offscreen or in an unfilmed prequel.
In other words, if you graphed the plot out the Dahlia narrative wouldn't look like a bell curve but would resemble a longtail theory.
And there's still more of an imbalancing act to come. The most noticeable is found in the casting and reflected in the resultant ensemble work. The performances are all over the map. You don't notice this at first since the cops, one hotheaded (Aaron Eckhart), and one cool and careful (Josh Hartnett), are meant to balance each other out. Both actors are serviceable enough to sell their roles without getting in the way of DePalma's primary concern: the women.
All of the female characters within The Black Dahlia are either brutal or brutalized but the actresses playing them create a skewed portrait. There is a true seesaw of quality in plain view. Both Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank are miscast and inept, albeit in different ways. The first performance is a gaping abyss of nothing (Johansson looks lost and is too young for her role) and the second is filled with ACTING! but they're both cringeworthy in their shakier moments. On the other hand, Fiona Shaw and Mia Kirshner have rarely been so well employed. They fare much better.
Shaw plays an eccentric and wealthy mother (to Swank's Dahlia wannabe) and her performance is positively unhinged. She is so forceful in her tiny window of opportunity that she feels like something of a co-director: she's either completely keyed in to the more gonzo instincts of the divisive auteur behind the camera or she's interpreted her part so forcefully that you're left to piece the entire movie back together once she's ripped it to shreds. Mia Kirshner is also mesmerizing. She makes the most of this sad victim. Appearing only in flashback, she is the ghost that haunts the rest of the movie, even when she's not onscreen. She gives The Black Dahlia it's only deep emotion: despair.
In the already famous moment that announces the Dahlia's entrace into the larger film narrative, the camera is high above the ground looking down at some city blocks where two stories are, we realize, unfolding simultaneously. At the top of the screen a woman sees something in a field and begins to scream and run from her awful discovery. It's a genius sequence, instantly repellent and also begging to be seen: in other words, the true crime genre in a nutshell. As the terrified witness runs from the ghastly vision the camera follows and then abandons her, eventually returning us to the original story, this new crime already haunting the audience though it hasn't yet spooked our protagonists. But it's also far too emblematic of the overall problem with this film. Though Kirshner plays the title character, her story is all on the fringe of a beautifully visualized but otherwise misjudged and overpopulated noir. One wishes that the movie had been less faithful to the book. If more of the densely plotted first half had been jettisoned or streamlined, perhaps the good stuff in this movie...the great stuff about a troubled actress and her gruesome demise, the material that has clearly inspired both the director and his key actress could have cut deeper. This murder leaves a horrifying imprint but it's rather like a ghost image itself. You can't quite see it.
It's fascinating but frustrating that the film ends with the line like "come inside" when so much of what you're seeing is obscured and inpenetrable. Huge chunks of The Black Dahlia seem entirely disposable but there are moments that refuse to be shrugged off. They plead with you to look closely at this not quite beautiful thing.