The qualities that make Josh Hartnett such a washout as a romantic lead—his emotional opacity, his inexpressive, coal-black eyes—make him a natural for the world of film noir, where stoic men cut themselves off from their emotions to avoid being swallowed whole by the darkness surrounding them. In Brian De Palma's masterful adaptation of James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, Hartnett embodies two hardboiled types: the cop who gets too close to the case, and the boxer who must take a dive. Hartnett and co-star Scarlett Johansson—that most fatale of current filmic femmes—are naturals for this kind of noir-hued material, but the pairing of Ellroy and De Palma proves a marriage made in hardboiled heaven.
In many ways, Dahlia is De Palma's History Of Violence—a virtuoso thriller by a wildly idiosyncratic filmmaker working at his most restrained and commercial. But it nevertheless touches on many of De Palma's pet obsessions, from kinky sex to voyeurism to classic film. In a surprisingly commanding lead performance, Hartnett plays a boxer-turned-cop partnered with fellow boxer-turned-cop Aaron Eckhart. After a struggling actress (Mia Kirshner) is found murdered and gruesomely disemboweled, the two L.A. golden boys set out to solve her murder, in an epic quest that brings Hartnett into the warped circle of Hilary Swank, a kinky rich girl with an insatiable appetite for sex and low life.
Though Dahlia features De Palma in restrained-classicist mode, he can't entirely resist the urge to show off, most notably in a morbidly funny sequence shot entirely from Hartnett's perspective as he's introduced to Swank's nouveau-riche horror-show family. Elsewhere, De Palma's obsession with voyeurism and the power and danger of watching and being watched—so endemic to film as a medium, and De Palma's work in particular—finds its most haunting expression in a series of heartbreaking scenes where an unseen director interviews Kirshner during a vaguely sinister audition. She glories in the subversive power of exhibitionism while betraying the innate vulnerability of every struggling actress angling for a big break that'll never arrive. Where Swank is empowered by her raging sexuality, Kirshner is destroyed by it, just another casualty of a city and an industry that chews up pretty girls and spits them out whole.