THISENTIREPOST IS ONEBIGSPOILER.
(Fortunately, everything that’s a spoiler is in white text. Your movie-going experience won’t ruined unless you highlight the big white space down there. And then read it.)
After my friend and I walked out of this movie, we were confused. Dumbfounded. We’re both English majors, so we spend a great deal of time dissecting plots. We weren’t about to be outsmarted by a mediocre movie. So, after a lot of discussion, we more or less got everything figured out. We think. Here’s our interpretation of this insane, convoluted movie. It should be noted that the movie tells all of this in a completely different order.
Elizabeth Short/The Black Dahlia (Mia Kirshner, who does the best acting in the entire film) comes to Los Angeles trying to make it in the movie business. She’s hanging out at lesbian clubs, where she meets Madeline Linscott (Hillary Swank), who looks a lot like her. They have sex. The Dahlia is rooming with other aspiring actresses. One of them, Lorna, gets an offer to be in a porn, and needs to find another girl, so she calls the Dahlia. The porn is filmed on a housing development under the Hollywood sign. The housing development is owned by Mr. Linscott, Madeline’s father. He’s thanked at the end of the credits of the porn. Why the porn needed credits is beyond me. Anyway…
George, a family friend of the Linscotts is there while they’re shooting the porn, and becomes obsessed with the Dahlia. Mr. Linscott pays the Dahlia to go on a date with George. Somehow the date ends up at the housing development, where Mrs. Linscott is waiting. For no reason at all, Mrs. Linscott bashes the Dahlia on the head with a baseball bat, then George drags her into a shed. They put her head in a vice, cut her mouth from ear to ear, and she’s dead.
Meanwhile, two former boxers turned cops – Bucky (Josh Hartnett) and Lee (Aaron Eckhart) – agree to fight a series of boxing matches for “charity.” It’s really just a veiled attempt to win public support for some proposition. Bucky has an aging father who needs a nurse because he clearly has dementia. However, he’s in debt, and can’t afford it. So he accepts money to throw the fight. This gives him enough cash to pay off all his debts and put his dad in a very nice rest home. (In all honesty, they could have cut this entire part of the movie out. It’s pretty much pointless.) During all of this fighting, Bucky meets Lee’s girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansen). Bucky and Kay clearly have a lot of chemistry, but neither of them act on it.
The boxing match gets the proposition passed, which gets Bucky promoted to detective. Bucky and Lee and Kay all become fast friends. Kay cooks dinner for the two of them, her “super cops,” and they all go to a New Year’s Party. At the party, Lee gets a tip about a drug deal from the club owner, Moorie.
Bucky and Lee are partners. They’re on a stake out when, 40 minutes into the movie, the camera pans up and over the building they’re watching into a field, revealing the body of the Dahlia being found by a woman pushing a baby carriage. The film cuts to a gangster walking with what appears to be a hooker. He makes a comment about a dirty cop before he arrives at the building. Bucky is asleep in the stake out car. Lee yells, “Get down!” Bucky thinks that Lee has saved his life, when in reality, Lee did this to have an opportunity to shoot the gangster.
It turns out that Lee is a dirty, dirty cop. In the case that really started his career, he was investigating Bobby DeWitt, a drug-dealing pimp. Kay was one of his whores. (We figure this out when Bucky sees a huge scar on her back that looks like someone carved the initals “BD” into her.) DeWitt robbed a bank. Lee solved the case and started dating Kay. The money from the robbery was never recovered. Why? Because Lee was keeping half of it under his bathroom floor. The other half he gave to the gangster for safe keeping. The gangster was about to rat on Lee, so Lee shot him. All of this business isn’t over, however, because Bobby DeWitt is about to be released from prison, and has vowed to take revenge on Lee and Kay.
After the shootout has been wrapped up, Bucky and Lee hear sirens and follow them to the field where the Dahlia’s body is. The scene is completely crowded with detectives. The city becomes obsessed with the crime. The coroner reveals that her blood was drained from her body and then her organs were removed.
Lee, who has always been somewhat of a publicity hound, becomes obsessed with the Dahlia case, which he isn’t even assigned to. He starts taking Benzadrine to stay up. Bucky tries to talk some sense into him, but doesn’t do much good. Lee asks for a week to try to solve the case, and Bucky agrees, letting Lee stay at his father’s old apartment. Bucky doesn’t know this, but Lee has stolen a lot of case files and documents. He plasters the entire apartment with pictures of the Dahlia. This leaves Kay convienently alone for a week. Bucky checks up on her often, and tells her DeWitt is getting out of jail. The romantic tension between the two of them continues to grow. She makes a move on Bucky, and he rejects her, saying that he couldn’t do that to Lee.
Bucky and Lee interview the Dahlia’s father, who could really care less about the entire affair. Bucky interviews one of the Dahlia’s old roommates who mentions something about her talking to a lesbian. Bucky starts checking out lesbian clubs. (Insert completely random song and dance number with k.d. lang singing Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.”) At one of the clubs, he sees Madeline Linscott. He notices her resemblance to the Dahlia and tries to talk to her, but she eludes him. But not before he can jot down her license plate number down, along with her name, inside the cover of a matchbook. The next day at the station, Lee asks for a light. Bucky tosses him the matchbook and, unbeknownst to Bucky, Lee sees Madeline’s name and plate number.
Bucky finds Madeline, who admits to knowing the Dahlia from lesbian clubs. Bucky is clearly attracted to her, and he ends up having dinner at the Linscott home. During the funniest scene of the entire movie, Madeline’s little sister draws a pornographic cartoon of Bucky and Madeline having sex; Mrs. Linscott goes on a drunken rant about having a street named after her and something about Mexican whores. After dinner, Bucky and Madeline end up at a hotel, where they have sex. Madeline admits to having had sex with the Dahlia. Bucky gets disgusted and leaves.
Meanwhile, the cops track down Lorna, who admits to the porn and brings the reel to the detectives. Lee and Bucky watch the film in a room with other cops and the D.A. The credits roll, Lee sees Mr. Linscott’s name, makes the connection between Madeline and Mr. Linscott, and completely flips out and storms out. We don’t see this, but he goes to the Linscott home and blackmails Mr. Linscott. Madeline knows about this, so she manages to set him up to be killed.
Lee gets a tip that DeWitt is supposed to show up in one of Moorie’s clubs. Bucky gets wind of this from Kay, and rushes to stop him. When he walks in, Bobby DeWitt is in the lobby of the club. Bucky attacks him, then a shot is fired, killing DeWitt. And who shot him? Lee, of course, from upstairs. Bucky looks up to where the shot came from, and sees Lee. He also sees someone sneaking up behind him to strangle him, and tries to warn Lee. But it’s too late. It’s George, who has him against the railing. Suddenly, Madeline, dressed as a man, steps out of the shadows and slits Lee’s throat. Then Lee and George fall over the railing, down a couple of stories into a fountain. Moorie burns their bodies in the basement.
Of course, now that Lee is dead, Bucky and Kay get together. They’re heartbroken, of course, but this isn’t going to stop them from having crazed sex on the dining room table. Kay cuts her foot on a bathroom tile and asks Bucky to fix it for her. When he does, he finds the money Lee stashed. He confronts Kay about it and she confesses to the bank robbery and bit about the gangster. Bucky realizes what really happened at the shoot out.
Bucky feels betrayed, so he rushes out and sleeps with Madeline again. In the morning, he sees a picture of George, who he recognizes as the man who strangled Lee. He also sees a painting of a clown with a crazy smile, which reminds him of the way the Dahlia’s face had been cut. When he leaves the Linscott home, Kay is waiting for him in the car. She tells him he’s sick for sleeping with someone who looks so much like the Dahlia, then drives off.
Back at the station, Bucky watches the porn again, and this time notices what Lee noticed – the credit thanking Mr. Linscott. He goes to the housing development and pokes around. He finds the room where the porn was filmed. Outside, there’s a shed. He pops the lock off, and there’s the scene of the crime, complete with a lock of the Dahlia’s hair and a faded clown painting on the wall identical to the one at Madeline’s.
He storms over to the Linscott’s to find Madeline and her father about to kiss. Apparently someone decided to throw some incestual tones into the last twenty minutes of the movie. Why not, right? He confronts Mr. Linscott, thinking he’s the murderer. Then, a very drunk Mrs. Linscott staggers out and confesses to the whole thing before shooting herself.
Later, Bucky follows Madeline to the same hotel they had sex in. She’s with a soilder. Bucky walks in with a gun, and tells the guy to get out. He does. Quickly. Bucky and Madeline have a little talk, tying up loose ends. Madeline says, “You’d rather fuck me than shoot me, but you’re too afraid to do either.” And then Bucky shoots her.
Bucky ends up at Kay’s, and it’s clear he’s still haunted by the Dahlia case. We know this because there’s a very subtle shot of him looking at the lawn and seeing the Dahlia’s corpse being picked at by a crow. Kay opens the door and they stare at one another for awhile. (Why is Scarlett Johansson always accepting roles where she does nothing but stare at things?) Then Bucky comes in, Kay shuts the door, and they embrace. Thankfully, this is the end.
This movie would have been so much better if the first forty minutes had been compressed into ten minutes. Then there would have been much more time to explore the more important plot points. Also, so many huge twists depended on the most miniscule things – so much time elapses between – highlight for me, will ya? – Bucky jotting down Madeline’s name in the matchbook and Lee noticing her name that I didn’t even make the connection until I saw the movie a second time. Honestly, I don’t think this film is worth the price of admission. If you must see it, I suggest renting it watching it on mute. The costumes and actors are all pretty. The camera work is nice. The rest of it isn’t really worth paying attention to.