20 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara is shown in a scene from "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."

Early this year, in an interview with W magazine, director David Fincher divided his work into two categories: "movies" and "films." A movie, he said, is a commercial undertaking, with pleasing the audience its only goal. A film is to be daring and also is intended for public consumption but even more so for fellow filmmakers. On his resume, "Fight Club" (1999) and "Zodiac" (2007) qualify as films, Fincher said, while last year's "The Social Network" is merely a movie.

We now can add "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to Fincher's "movie" list.

His version of the internationally best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson is as pulpy and noirish as the book—and as engrossing as the written version is page-turning. And though it trades in dark, dark subject matter, it's ultimately disposable, a Hollywood tentpole movie designed to kickstart a screen franchise, entertainment that treads into lurid territory with the comfort of the bad guys getting their due and an unlikely heroine taking justice into her own hands in a dramatic, emphatic manner.

It seems odd to say given the multiple scenes of rape and torture, but "Dragon Tattoo" easily is the safest, most commercial movie Fincher has made to date. It has a built-in audience around the world, and this is, after all, the man who made the bleak serial killer thriller "Seven" (1995) and later gave us "Zodiac," which focused on the most minute, procedural details of a murder investigation.

In "Dragon Tattoo," the killing in question is 40 years old. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired CEO of a large, family-owned corporation, brings disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to his remote island home—during what appears to be the coldest winter ever in Sweden—to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Though her body was never found, no one could have left the island due to a traffic accident on the bridge. The suspects: the members of the Vanger family, a shady clan if ever there was one, what with the multiple Nazi connections.

Daniel Craig, right, and Christopher Plummer are shown in a scene from "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
As he delves into Henrik's decades of notes and research, and begins to probe various Vangers, Blomkvist decides he needs help, a research assistant. He turns to the one who did the (mostly illegal) background check on him for Henrik: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), 23, a wisp of a woman, with choppy, black hair, bleached eyebrows, piercings, tattoos, tattered clothing and a strong antisocial streak.

Declared legally incompetent at age 12, she is a ward of the state. Her new guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), lets her have her own money only in exchange for sexual favors. Fincher doesn't shy away from presenting the rape and Salander's equally brutal retaliation.

The narrative doesn't fully take off until Blomkvist and Salander meet, though every scene involving Salander is compelling.

This all is familiar to anyone who has seen the original Swedish movie (2009), directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander. Though some details differ, both adaptations stay true to the source material and have a similar ominous air hanging over the events.

Filmed entirely in Sweden and with all Swedish dialogue, the first movie feels more authentic, and it gave us Rapace in one of the most magnetic performances the screen has seen in many years.

Mara plays the role similarly—she has no choice given the character's iconic status—yet still delivers the knockout performance the movie needs. With her radical physical transformation and Swedish accent, she is virtually unrecognizable, disappearing into the role. Salander's whole life has been controlled by others, giving us the sense that the piercings and tattoos are her way of seizing some small bit of independence. Her striking appearance, then, is a product of the life forced upon her.

The character is just as much about attitude—a quiet confidence, a complete distrust of everyone around her, an utter hatred for authority.

Mara carries the weight of all this on her small frame—and the movie along with it. I cannot say I prefer her to Rapace, but I can say I did not think about Rapace until I did so consciously after the movie. Mara's performance stands on its own and likely gives birth to a new star.

Fincher's movie is, by far, the more cinematic of the two (the Swedish production was made originally for TV), with aerial shots of the desolate, snow-covered Swedish landscape, a shot that places us on Salander's motorcycle as she zooms through a tunnel and another from inside a plastic bag placed over someone's head. The editing, by Fincher's frequent collaborators Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, is key in montages depicting Blomkvist and Salander's investigation, performed both together and apart. On top of that, there is the eerie, electronic music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar-winners for "The Social Network").

But for all its technical achievements, Fincher tells the story with a detachment from its emotional content, as if he's merely observing the events, while the Swedish movie went in deeper and created a real sense of danger around every turn.

Fincher's "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" lacks urgency, the feeling that it needed to be made—a sense that powers the director's best work ("Seven," "Fight Club," "The Social Network"). It is exactly what Fincher probably would call it himself: just a movie.

Greg's Grade: B+

(Rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language. 158 minutes.)

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