Director Brian De Palma doesn't exactly have a soft touch, does he? From Scarface to Carrie to The Untouchables, De Palma has an overriding fascination with the baroque—which can work to his detriment or great success. And while he may often be accused of overdoing it, you always know what you're getting with a Brian De Palma film, and his singular gift is providing sumptuous, bloody—and often gauche—entertainment.
So it's not Brian De Palma's fault that The Black Dahlia is somewhat of a disaster; I'm laying that blame squarely on the shoulders of screenwriter Josh Friedman (who also wrote the inept remake of War of the Worlds). And while Friedman should certainly be ashamed of his work here, the blame we cast should be tempered with sympathy, because composing a script for James Ellroy's confusing circuitous novel The Black Dahlia could drive anyone to mediocrity.
Based on a real-life crime, The Black Dahlia tells of a would-be starlet who is gruesomely killed and the two cops who attempt to solve her murder. While unsolved in real life, Ellroy imagines a world where police, real estate barons, and lesbians are endlessly corrupt and work together to cover up their sins. Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are our cops, and Scarlett Johansson is the beautiful wife stuck in the middle—and yet, all have secrets and a secret obsession with the murdered starlet that are far too complicated to explain in a short review, or even repeated readings of the novel.
What works is the lush, Bernard Hermann-styled score and the golden-hued imagery of Golden Age Hollywood that De Palma ladles onto the screen. While no one is amazing, Hartnett and company do the best they can with what they have—a confusing script which will lose the average audience within the first reel. L.A. Confidential should have been the template for this movie, which successfully trimmed Elroy down to the bare essentials—and didn't leave the audience scratching their heads.