Embracing the Cold (Without the Embrace)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (December 21, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by David Fincher (Columbia Pictures)

Allow me to begin by saying I have not read the bestselling, 2008 novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, nor viewed the 2009 screen adaptation. Now I wish I had done both. David Fincher’s American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a terrifically chilling, cinematic vision of the taboo crime story, yet I unfortunately do not have the background to determine the justice Fincher, along with screenwriter Steve Zailian, have given the characters and tone that Larsson penned years earlier. When reviewing film adaptations, I usually try to seperate the book and movie by judging them as individual creative works, while still determining whether the film has used the substance within the book usefully. But since I have not read Larsson’s novel, this is both easier and harder to do. Easier because I have no choice but to see Fincher’s film as a singular work, but more difficult because I can only speculate as to how the filmmakers morphed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into their own vision.

Being familiar with David Fincher’s work, especially what are likely his greatest films, Fight Club and The Social Network, certainly helps. Because as I sat watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I couldn’t help but think Fincher muted elements of Larsson’s story in order to create something so cold and depraved, that it lacked life where it should have soared. There certainly is meaning here, but it is buried underneath layers of Fincher ambiguity. This makes for one of the director’s weaker films, but does not go as far as to deplete the pulpy excellence of Stieg Larsson’s story. Even when it lies dead on the screen, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is simply fascinating.

Without revealing too many strands of extremely dense plotting, the basic set-up involves Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine writer who has recently lost a very detrimental (and publicly debated) libel case. He is soon hired by ill industry CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve a murder that dates back over 30 years, and that has haunted his family and business ever since. Meanwhile, the “girl” herself, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), is the hacker/researcher who performed the background check on Blomkvist for Vanger’s assistant. Upon learning this, Blomkvist hires Salander to help him solve the case, and as the two dive deeper into their own sadistic world, Blomkvist becomes a sort of friend/lover to the tattooed woman.

Although by no means groundbreaking in its content, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo displays graphic rape, torture, sex, and violence without blinking an eye. This approach manifests the film as the gritty descent into darkness that it is, although not without flaw. Although I’m sure all the subplots within the 600-page plus novel do not remain within Fincher’s adaptation, there are many layers of plot that overlay each other, as they often do within Fincher films. This does arouse some confusion, as well as weaken some of the references to Nazism and Antisemitism that make the crime so interesting. Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a well-made concoction, if only the editing did not frequently cut us out of both the action and conversations we hope to focus on. The cinematography, however, is fairly accomplished, the drained color (used to perfection in The Social Network) utilizing the winter landscapes quite well.

Yet the heart of the film (if there really is any in this grim tale) lies in Rooney Mara’s Oscar-worthy performance as Lisbeth Salander. After breaking up with Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Mara successfully transforms herself into the goth-biker chick we know and love; one with a strong mind, body, and willingness to be “different.” Her cold execution is only offset by how awesomely she accomplishes her goals, especially after being abused by the men who frequently hate and misunderstand her gender. But she is tough; she can take the pain because she is the pinnacle of womanly strength. It is only near the end of the film that she begins to believe there is some goodness in the world reserved for her. Or, well … maybe not. You see, this change in attitude also separates Salander further from the reality she and Blomkvist have just explored. One gets the idea that she would never make that mistake again.

The characters of Blomkvist and Vanger, however, appear to be the “normal” ones. Blomkvist, being a relatively ordinary member of society (in contrast to Salander) is not experiencing the formations of friendship for the first time, and is instead left only with the darkness surrounding him in this cold, cold word. But he does have a job, daughter, and co-worker who he may love (Robin Wright). Therefore, he does not appear to change very much at all during the course of the film, other than in his appreciation of what he had before the case began. But the problem for me lies in the fact that I kept asking myself whether his character should have any development. Craig’s presence carries a necessary intensity to the role, but there is little about Blomkvist that is likeable. Although he may not be designed as a “heroic” character by any means, his lack of personality and non-reaction to the events around him do little to make us care about what is happening. It also arouses the question of what Salander could possibly see in him, other than the fact that she wants to shield him from the abuse of the world that has so deeply affected her. Blomkvist appreciates and responds to her affections, and the two do carry an odd sort of chemistry. But in the end, Fincher’s interpretation of Larsson’s protagonist makes Blomkvist the weakest link in more ways than one. At a later point, Salander will feel betrayed, now interpreting Blomkvist in the same way she has for all men. And why shouldn’t she? Sometimes, it appears as though her heart is the only one beating.

In fact, everything about Fincher’s stylish thriller is so devoid of passion that the story almost becomes secondhand to the relentlessly cold tone. Although it remains as interesting as ever, there is clear lack of excitement in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even during the plot twists. But sometimes, it accomplishes exactly what it should. And that is giving us a compelling look at the mundane world of crime, that sometimes sickens, and at other times thrills exceedingly. If only those moments could sustain the whole film.

What does is Rooney Mara, who so perfectly embodies a character already established in pop culture. Another high point – the creepy, careening, electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as an amazingly cool, animated opening credits sequence. Equally amazing, at almost two hours and 40 minutes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does not seem like a slog at all. It is obviously a long film, but is paced well enough to maintain interest even when it deprives itself of the fascinatingly layered material it has to work from. In terms of style and structure, it’s pure David Fincher. Well, sort of. The director doesn’t really display the brilliance we’re used to seeing, which may be his way of making clear that this is not his own story. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that somehow the filmmaker trapped everything within his own hands, rather than distributing it where it should belong – amongst the characters. It’s his style, but it weakens the brilliance of what I believe to be the source material. It doesn’t do this by manipulating the depth of Larsson’s story, which is still tremendously entertaining, but by simply breezing over the details, instead of letting us linger upon them. But as I said earlier, a lot of this is speculation. Yet I am confident that I can judge Fincher’s film as a work of its own, and on that front, it was definitely a good effort. If only we had less of a cinematic exercise, and more of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


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