“Do you think you’re capable of playing sadness?” an unseen director asks a wannabe actress and future murder victim, in screen test footage that recurs throughout Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia.
“Sure,” she replies, her voice steady but her mind elsewhere. “I can do that.”
And so can De Palma, who provides the voice of that soft-spoken yet menacing director. One of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films, The Black Dahlia is, above all else, a tragedy—and not just for the abovementioned Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), whose unsolved 1947 murder-mutilation in served as the basis for countless movies and books, including DePalma’s source material, James Ellroy’s 1987 novel. (Be warned: this review is all spoilers.) Ellroy’s book wove a fictional mystery around Short’s murder. Both a pastiche and a critique, it used Raymond Chandler-styled purple prose knowingly and ironically, cluing the reader to see through Chandler’s smoky machismo and understand that the same male swagger that’s sanctified via the hardboiled fiction hero exists in the real world, where it enables sexism, racism, xenophobia and the subjugation of the poor by the rich.
Screenwriter Josh Friedman’s adaptation frames the story within a heavily narrated extended flashback by ex-boxer turned L.A. police detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who tries to solve Short’s seemingly random killing with help from his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and drifts ever closer to two women, kinky socialite Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and Lee’s blond goddess girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). At first the film plays like Chinatown-style modern noir, in which the investigation of a singular horror reveals corruption within families, institutions and communities. But The Black Dahlia soon reveals itself as something more: the story of a young man discovering his moral code, then realizing how useless it is in the face of society-wide indifference, greed and cruelty.