Friday, December 23, 2011

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Finally, Not Satisfying

First, we had Stieg Larsson’s best selling Millennium trilogy of books. Then, the three Swedish movies based on them. And now, Hollywood has set its sights on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the film adaption of the first book in the series – on the valid assumption that the project was worth doing since American audiences don’t generally go to foreign language films. But despite a first rate director, David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network), screenwriter, Steve Zaillian (Mission: Impossible, Schindler’s List), and a star-studded cast, including Daniel Craig (the new James Bond, Munich) and Christopher Plummer (The Insider, The Last Station), the movie doesn’t quite cut it, which is unfortunate since the Swedish movies failed to do justice to Larsson’s terrific novels. The American movie didn’t dash my hopes entirely – Fincher’s film-making is generally top notch – but it wasn’t what it should have been, either.

Fincher and Zaillian stick pretty closely to the novel, which opens with muckraking Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) having just lost a libel suit brought against him by a high-powered businessman. Heavily fined (though he doesn’t go to jail as he did in the book), Blomkvist has withdrawn from his magazine, Millennium, and is licking his wounds when he is contacted by a lawyer representing Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired industrialist. Vanger offers him an assignment: to help him write his memoirs, but it's actually to investigate the murder of his niece Harriet, who disappeared in 1966, and whose body was never found. Vanger is convinced that it was a member of his large family who committed the deed, and is sure that Blomkvist can spot something in the voluminous records on the case that he has missed. Thus begins a dark and disturbing adventure, which also brings Blomkvist into contact with the films’ titular heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the girl with the dragon tattoo, an anti-social, angry and troubled young woman and computer hacker extraordinaire. Their bond is what makes the movie tick, or would if Mara weren’t so wrong for the part.

Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist
In the novels, Salander is described as anorexic-looking and feral. Noomi Rapace, the actress who played her in the Swedish movies, was to my mind, too pretty and conventional for the part. Mara is physically more apropos for the role but, oddly, except, perhaps for her scenes revolving around sex and violence, looks too ordinary and comes across as nothing more than the well-scrubbed college girl she played in The Social Network. This is the case of an American actress who thinks getting some piercings (as Mara did to help her inhabit the part) will help convince the audience that she is the dangerous outlaw that is Lisbeth Salandar. No sale, I’m afraid. I didn’t buy her for a second as Salander. I’ll confess here that I can’t think of an actress who would be the right fit for Salander, but I know neither Rapace nor Mara are it.

Fincher does a nice job, however, of contrasting Salander with Blomkvist. Her expository scenes are cut quickly, as befits an instinctual character who is totally at ease in a technological environment, which is how she makes a living. Blomkvist’s scenes play out longer, since he’s methodical and old school, and anything but quick to spring into action. (Significantly, his atypical decision not to be cautious, and immediately bite at the supposed ‘evidence’ implicating the influential businessman, is what trips him up when the ‘proof’ he is offered turns out to be bogus.) But those two modes of displaying the characters, who, refreshingly, as in the books and other films, don’t meet for quite awhile, also makes for an unwieldy, jagged movie. The story moves in fits and starts, not quite finding its rhythm for the longest time.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Sslander
What does work is the film’s atmosphere, though the jangly opening credits, were, as my friend Gary remarked, more suited to a Bond film. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwith, who also shot Fincher’s inspired, stunning The Social Network, renders the film’s palette in stark, chilly images, as befits a story set in the dead of a Swedish winter. (It also echoes, likely on purpose, Tak Fujimoto’s stellar work on 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.) Fincher is well aided by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, who also scored The Social Network. Their use of mood and music adds immeasurably to the whole. The rest of the cast, sans Mara, is very fine, too, with Craig – not my favourite actor, matching his excellent work in Steven Spielberg’s Munich – and Plummer, Robin Wright (Forrest Gump) as Blomkvist’s lover/co-editor Erika, and Stellan Skarsgård (Taking Sides, Mamma Mia!) as Henrik’s nephew Martin, all in fine form. You also never think of the movie as American, even though it’s shot in English (on location in Sweden) with its mostly British, Canadian and American cast essaying subtle but apparent accents. As with Schindler’s List, Steve Zaillian is a master at creating English dialogue that evokes other languages.

Director David Fincher
Fincher and Zaillian also manage to get across Larsson’s biting critique of Sweden whose image as a feminist, open-minded and just refuge was, in his mind, terribly exaggerated, if not an outright lie, and thus worthy of exposing. The changes made to the screenplay from the novel are minor, and mostly acceptable, such as trimming the Vanger family tree of some of its branches so as to be less confusing. I wouldn’t have dropped Blomkvists’s fling with one of the Vanger women, as the movie does, since it burnished his image as a reluctant womanizer. I also wish there wasn’t a faint whiff of Fincher’s misogynistic Se7en in some of the movie’s more brutal scenes. (The Swedish Dragon Tattoo seemed to me to be more reticent and responsible in what it depicted onscreen.) At least, the book’s powerful ending, dropped inexplicably from the Swedish adaption, which explains Salander’s true feelings towards Blomkvist, is properly restored here.

Yet despite its many strengths, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo left me cold and ambivalent. I’m not entirely sure that Fincher believes in this movie and I suspect he sees it more as a calling card – not that he needs one at this stage of his career – to help him launch more personal, idiosyncratic projects once, as is likely, the movie becomes a big hit. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which is ultimately more than a bit impersonal, even mechanical – is just not as rich, complex or thoughtful as Fincher’s recent work, though Larsson’s books certainly fit that bill. It may be that we, including Fincher, are suffering from Stieg Larsson burnout, or that his highly original, quirky novel simply doesn’t lend itself to film, but whatever the reason, this movie, finally, doesn’t satisfy.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

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