Brian De Palma's attempt at the neo-noir 1940s crime genre is a nearly unmitigated disaster. The Black Dahlia stars Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johanssen, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank, almost all of whom look like they're playing dress-up. The whole thing rings screechingly false, as though people like those depicted in the movie never existed in the history of the world, and our real noirs from the 1940s were just as phony. The film is so bad that it made me want to re-think the entire genre.
The script is sufficiently convoluted that you might mistake yourself for being involved in a tension-filled mystery, but the plot-lines are so numerous and so undeveloped that nothing more than incoherence is ever really achieved. Roomie and I had no idea what was going on for most of the film, and still after nearly ten minutes of discussion couldn't figure out why certain characters behaved in certain ways other than that the plot dictated such actions. Script problems aside (they are too numerous to explore) the film looks beautiful. It's gorgeously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond and designed beautifully by Dante Feretti and Jenny Beavan. Actually, the worst part of the film (and the script is so terrible that what I am about to say is really quite a pronouncement) may be Hilary Swank's performance. It's a kind of bizarre star turn that is so actor-ly, so inhuman that she actually appears to be something other than a carbon-based life form. When we first see her character, we catch sight of her through the eyes of our hero (Josh Hartnett) across the smoke-filled lounge of a gay bar and so Swank appears to be a drag queen. Her movements and gestures contain the kind of exaggerated femininity associated chiefly with female impersonators—certainly not with a confident, sexual woman with an awareness of her own power. When we hear her speak her accent is at once unplaceable and improbable, so much so that it can only be an affect. Her look and her voice are both so unmistakeably fake that assuming she's a drag queen makes perfect sense. Worse yet, the performance never moves from this place. Nowhere does Swank present the vulnerability of women like Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown or Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential. Instead, we get only a steely-eyed intensity so obviously phony you can't help but wonder why Josh Hartnett doesn't burst out laughing in the middle of the narrative.
In short, skip this film. If you want to see something from the neo-noir genre, rewatch The Grifters or Body Heat. If you want to catch good drag, rent Die, Mommie, Die! Swank is a poor substitute for Charles Busch.