I Am the Night Review (Spoiler Free)

The Black Dahlia cold case takes a back seat to a coming of age story in TNT's I Am the Night.

I Am the Night

Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman, flips the noir narrative in I Am the Night. In most film noir movies, going back to the forties, a hapless male is endangered by a femme fatale. Here all the fatal attractions grow stubble. From daddy dearest to the journalist who stars in series to the cops protecting her, Fauna Hodel is constantly at risk of death.

The series is based on the real life story of Fauna Hodel, the biological grandfather of Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a renowned Los Angeles gynecologist who may also be one of the most heinous criminals in the history of Hollywood: The Black Dahlia murderer. We know this going in because it is telegraphed on almost every frame, but also because main character Fauna’s journey to find him is the premise itself. India Eisley plays the teenage girl as an almost-misfit. She was given away on the day she was born, and raised as a biracial child near Reno, Nevada. Wanting to be a whole person, she goes out to Hollywood on an invite from her biological grandfather. She runs into Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), a formerly respected reporter whose career was destroyed by her grandfather.

Actually, it’s Singletary who almost runs into Fauna, as she spends a lot of time in the series being chased or otherwise hounded by cars. The series is equal parts True Detective and L.A. Confidential, the film based on James Ellroy’s novel about the Black Dahlia investigation. It also contains a hint of Heart of Darkness, with George Hodel as the miniseries’ Kurtz. The good doctor pumps blood into every scene. He is the prime motivation for both lead characters, and he doesn’t really show up until the end. He makes appearances, on a bench, at an art exhibit, but he doesn’t come into his own until the series is fully underway.

The Black Dahlia murder shook Los Angeles in 1947. The victim’s real name was Elizabeth Short and her murder and her mutilation and bisection is one of Hollywood’s most notorious cold cases. I Am the Night doesn’t give a full view of the murder during its six episodes. In real life, it was George Hodel’s son, a Los Angeles police officer, who first accused his father of the Black Dahlia killings. The son plays no part in the miniseries. The real Hodel also skipped the country fifteen years before the series is set.

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Fauna is 16 in 1965, when she learns her mother lied about her past. Fauna wants to belong. The series ends during the start of the Watts Riots, she is faced with the choices of staying in Los Angeles, going back to Nevada, or braving the embattled traffic to go to the eerie but colorful mansion where her worst nightmares may be played out. The social implications of the racial undertones are underplayed. Fauna is caught between two worlds she will forever be shut out of, but the actual peril of that part of her life is only given lip service. The characters around her aren’t quite rounded out enough to compete with the eccentrics of wealthy Hollywood.

further reading: The Best True Crime Series Available to Stream Right Now

India Eisley brings an innocent quality to the role of Fauna but it’s not exactly innocence. We see in her eyes the mental and verbal abuse she suffered at her adoptive mother Jimmy Lee’s (Golden Brooks) hand, but the very first, and only, time Jimmy Lee lays her hands on Fauna, the girl doesn’t see it coming. Eisley doesn’t bring the detective to the Fauna character, and doesn’t quite bring enough weight to the part to counterbalance her scenes with the other actors.

Pine is very good in the part, but is straddled with unnecessary baggage. Jay’s sneakers bother me. He wears them with suits and it seems an anachronistic affectation more for the televised visual than for any insight into his character. The same with his love of bar brawls. Singletary is also a Korean War veteran suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress, some of it he got in the war, but the majority of his problems started after he went after Hodel.

It takes a while for Fauna and Jay to share any scenes. Pine, who is as far from his turn at the com as Captain Kirk, is generous. He not only actively listens, but you can feel him impressing Jay’s suspicions and his desire for answers onto Fauna’s delivery. He is so obviously holding back information this reviewer wanted to see Fauna crack him in the face or something similarly violent. It’s all fun until someone loses an eye. This is saved for Sergeant Billis, menacingly played by Yul Vazquez, who tormented Kramer about wearing AIDS pin on Seinfeld and offended Hesh by comparing Columbus to Hitler on The Sopranos. Billis has one stomach crunching interrogation scene that comes up just short of eye-opening.

George Hodel is an accused abortionist who is being protected by the LAPD, for some reason. Renowned for his art collection, he’s a thwarted musician who piano maestro Rachmaninoff himself said had no soul. Jefferson Mays plays him with extreme restraint that passes for an affected air of culture. Hodel’s henchman and protégé Sepp (Dylan Smith) is pure menace even as he puts on his most approachable facades.

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I Am the Night was partially filmed where George Hodel lived, the Sowden House in Los Feliz that was known as “The Jaws House” because of its copper gates and elaborate stone entrance. The residence is so compelling, it frames the opening credits. I Am the Night does a good job at recreating Los Angeles of the time period. Although, the old cars look old, when they were actually new at the time the events were supposed to occur. The production team fits the old art deco buildings along with King Eddy Saloon and Chili Johns.

I Am the Night captures the atmosphere and the attitude of a film noir movie, but doesn’t sink far enough into the darkness of the shadows to be fully effective. There are thrills and chills, and the final payoff is artistically rendered in a subversively antiseptic setting. But the story isn’t compelling enough to leave viewers with recurring nightmares.

I Am the Night premieres Monday, January 28 on TNT.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

Rating:

3 out of 5