Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: A Twisted Hero for Twisted Times

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Directed By: David Fincher
Written By: Steve Zallian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Robin Wright
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth, Editors: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt, Original Music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Rated: R for hard violence, rape, and all the other stuff to support your anti-holiday cheer.

            The pitch-perfect sequence in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is also one of the most unmemorable sequences in the film. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is led around the yard outside the mansion of millionaire Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer), who has changed Blomkvist with investigating his family. Henrik explains each member of his family, where they live, and who talks to who. But Mr. Fincher’s camera refuses to let our eyes process this information. He cuts to shots of each home of each family member, and refuses to orient the spatial relationship of these homes to each other, just that they all surround each other. This reflects not only the script’s suggestions that the closest people to us are often the ones that hurt us the most, but more so, Fincher’s deconstruction of the investigative process. The textual information is displayed concretely and without flourish, but because the director refuses to reinforce each detail with visual information, we remain lost to the mystery.

            If Zodiac, Fincher’s cult classic masterpiece about the true-life serial killer in San Francisco, was all about making audience as obsessive as the characters solving an unknown case, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does the opposite. The answer to the central mystery is slapping us in the face, but because Fincher constantly disorients us with his bold and anti-genre compositions, it remains more of a character piece. And thus, the American director of Fight Club and The Social Network has done the best job he can in adapting the tepid, international best-seller by Stieg Larsson. Why the Swedish novels became an extravaganza still remains something of a mystery—the narratives are built on the same twist-heavy lackluster prose that launched Dan Brown, but include intense violence and rape as well. Perhaps thought, that comes down to the film’s titular character, here played by Rooney Mara (last seen breaking up with Mark Zuckerberg in the opening of The Social Network).

            The pretty Mara, playing Lisbaeth Salander, is unrecognizable here, spouting spiked tar-black hair and a similar colored wardrobe to match, not to speak of numerous piercings. Salander is a social outcast, not only legally (she’s a ward of the state), but also in her demeanor. Unlike the fast-talking Zuckerberg, Salander remains silent. When pressed to give her personal opinion on a matter, she refuses, before awkwardly discussing the sexual tendencies of the client she investigated.

            It’s a shame that Steve Zallian, who adapted Larsson’s novel, couldn’t stray further from the novel’s main mystery. Salander and Blomkvist never meet for over an hour (and the film runs close to three). While Blomkvist, attempting to escape after a libel suit leaves him penniless, solves the mystery of a missing girl on an isolated island, Salander must instead battle her psychiatrist who sexually abuses her in some quite intense sequences. However, as fans of the novel (and the simplistic Swedish films) will know, Salander takes her revenge and then some, and it’s here that Mara turns Lisabeth from an outcast to both the inevitable outcome of decades of institutionalized misogyny and a dark and twisted version of feminism.

            Lisabeth’s revenge still feels like the climax of the film, because it is certainly the most satisfying sequence in the film (as well as the one that will create plenty of audience members to hide their eyes), but soon she joins Blomkvist in his search to find who killed the young girl over forty years ago. Casting Craig, a paragon of masculinity, in the role of the ineffective journalist can be seen as miscasting, but also Fincher playing with out knowledge of star persona. While he does solve some of the intricacies of the case, it is Lisabeth who is able to make the links needed. When the two later end up more than just detectives, it is Lisabeth who is not just riding on top, but appears to be thrusting into his body.

            These kind of details, visual more than scripted, prove Fincher’s control over the camera, and his meticulous work appears throughout his tightly framed shots along with slow Stedicam pans. The director feels like a scientist dissecting rats in a maze, not emotionally distant necessarily, but like peeling an onion, trying to discover what’s inside. Bringing together DP Jeff Cronenweth and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (who all worked on The Social Network), Fincher constantly creates a smooth rhythm to the narrative, always leaving more details in the frame than we might get with a more standard director (or certainly Niels Oplev, director of the Swedish original). The film presents a series of dark blacks and blinding whites, and when Salander notices a smudge of a bright red on the palette of the camera, she amusingly and self-consciously wipes it off. Not every decision is perfect, however, and one involving a song by Enya during a crucially campy sequence will certainly be discussed for years in complete confusion.

            I wish though, Fincher and Zallian could make up for what is an awfully slight mystery. The narrative twists of Larsson’s novel seem to small and too silly for Fincher, and although he gives the dialogue a good spark of pace through the editing pattern, there is no way to overcome what the contents of that dialogue contain. Blomkvist and Salander are unique outcasts in a world of corruption, and Craig and Mara fit wonderfully together by exposing each other’s ticks and tocks, but the mystery they must solve is much less interesting than their personal demons they’ve left behind. As the extremely bold, almost parody, credits sequences suggests, these are two heroes born out of both a world of technology and increasing corruption, whether financial, political, or social.

            But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is all about playing with our expectations. Male star Craig becomes second fiddle to the unknown, and Mara goes from innocent female sidekick to the real story. The sounds of the score (by Social Network duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) are both brooding, but often sound like a broken music box. This is a fairy tale gone horribly wrong, but perhaps, it’s the only story we can have for a day like today. 

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