Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are two ex-pugilists-turned-cops working the warrant beat in late 1940's Los Angeles. During a bust, they come upon the gruesome crime scene of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner): a young, desperate Hollywood starlet who was disfigured, gutted, torn into two pieces, and left to rot. Turning their attention to the Short case, the detectives hit the streets for clues. For Blanchard, the case challenges his sanity and personal relationships (Scarlett Johansson), and he falls further into an obsession with Short. At the same time, Bleichert stumbles into the hands of an enigmatic siren (Hilary Swank) who resembles the dead girl.
James Ellroy's crime tales of the Hollywood underbelly are like Rubik's Cubes, and I don't envy the filmmakers who endeavor to solve them for the big screen. 1997's "L.A. Confidential" took everything director Curtis Hanson had within himself to keep the story on the rails. Now, legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma suits up for another gloomy yarn of sex, lies, and constant cigarette smoking.
Of the two films, "Dahlia" is the one that excels the most in recreating this period where crimes were solved with two fists, no one bothered with the truth, and knee-buckling sultry women wore lipstick the color of a gunshot. It's a filmmaker's dream to unearth noir material that allows for such visual grandstanding, and there's nobody around who can accomplish that task like De Palma. His bliss in depicting the bruise-n-babes era roars at the senses like a 3-D effect, pushing "Dahlia" to wonderful heights of production detail. The neon glows with menace, the costumes shimmer with texture, and menace is felt in every shadow. The key to capturing Ellroy is pessimism; that rot behind the beam of Tinseltown is what De Palma brings to the production that few others could. Ellroy has never had it so good.
While De Palma is embracing the 1940's visual landscape, he's made a controversial decision and instructed his actors to recreate the acting techniques of the decade as well. In 2006, the push to sometimes operatic melodrama can look foolish, and when some of these actors are shoved out into the sun, their performances can reach cringe-worthy levels.
Thankfully, the internalized role of Bleichert meets Hartnett at his skill level, asking the monotone, gravely actor to portray a poker-faced hardball who doesn't feel the need to emote. Of course, when the actor breaks this promise, the seams show in the acting, but Hartnett isn't nearly the liability here that he usually is. The real fun is Swank, who slips on the role of a bisexual kitten like a velvet glove, turning the film's most twisted and breathless role into one of its most memorable.
It's easy to get sucked into the dreamy haze of the mystery and the allure of the femme fatales, but to decipher the plot, you'll need a something to write with and perhaps a device that will keep your eyelids from blinking. This is a sprawling crime saga, and screenwriter Josh Friedman loads the dialog with character references, heightened period snap, and lays the exposition on like maple syrup. Much like "L.A. Confidential," there's just no room for emotional investment here, but "Dahlia" works twice as hard to immerse the viewer into the seedy world of these cops and their bad choices, and that compensates dearly for the occasional confusion.
The complexity of "Dahlia" and its octopus-like story of murder, Hollywood ambition, and forbidden love doesn't really pester until the final 20 minutes, when De Palma has to find a suitable finish. Like Hanson, De Palma stumbles badly to find an exit, creating the final movement of payoff and closure in an extremely tedious and flabbergasting series of scenes that reach uncomfortable moments of near parody. Rarely do you find a film fall to its knees that way that "Dahlia" does in the final strokes, and it takes the sting right out of this gorgeous film.
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