A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this film is premised on a grisly, real-life 1947 murder that remains unsolved and is still the subject of both Internet discussion and TV investigation/forensics shows. The film features frequent images of bloody, shot, and sliced-up bodies. A presumably insane character rants in a disturbing way before committing suicide violently. The film also includes other explicit scenes of violence (a riot, shootings, a throat being sliced, a face being cut while held in a vise). Characters (especially women) appear in various states of undress; the detectives watch a porn film made by the murder victim that features lesbian activity. A nightclub scene features showgirls dancing provocatively and kissing each other on stage. A couple of sex scenes suggest "passion" by having characters rip each other's clothes off. Characters use foul language (especially "f--k"), smoke a lot of cigarettes, and drink.
What's the story?
In THE BLACK DAHLIA, hardboiled detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) becomes obsessed with the murder of struggling actress Betty Short (Mia Kirshner). Bucky's troubled partner Lee (Aaron Eckhart), who is mixed up with stolen money and ex-prostitute Kay (Scarlett Johansson), also finds a distraction in the Black Dahlia case. While Lee pores over crime-scene photos, Bucky watches Betty's audition reels in which she panders to an off-screen director. Bucky's interest in Betty's films represents the titillating effects of movies and stardom, as manufactured by the bottom line-driven film industry. Bucky imagines himself as a deep thinker, though Kay suggests that he's not so bright. His dimness is evidenced by his interest in Madeleine (Hilary Swank), an angry rich girl who resembles Betty. Their relationship highlights the differences between the haves and the have-nots; Bucky must figure how those differences affect his case (and they always do affect it). Meanwhile, although he sees himself as a man in control, it's increasingly clear that he's not. And so, viewers begin to suspect his judgments.
Is it any good?
The Black Dahlia takes up obsession as a concept, abstracted and insistently masculine. While director Brian De Palma's work is famously misogynist and self-referential (not to say self-obsessed), it's hardly unique. The film is invested in the usual subjects -- the lurid murder, the business of Hollywood, the pain of sex, the objectification of (dead) women, the resolve of the dumb detective -- that make movies both disappointing and mesmerizing.
While the film opens on the racially driven "Zoot Suit" riots, it soon leaves behind this broader social context in order to focus on individual pathologies. The story draws comparisons between Betty and Bucky; both seeking celebrity in Hollywood -- he as a boxer (who ends up as a detective), she as a starlet -- they share a combined sense of hope and dread. These feelings are reflected repeatedly in their environment.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the longstanding fascination with the Black Dahlia murder case. How does it represent a mythic cautionary tale, involving young women and the evils of Hollywood as a dream factory and/or industry town? What messages does the film convey about women? Why is violence toward women so often sexualized (both in the media and in real life)?
- In theaters: September 15, 2006
- On DVD or streaming: December 26, 2006
- Cast: Hilary Swank, Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson
- Director: Brian De Palma
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 121 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language.
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
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