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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

‘Dragon Tattoo’: An Almost Too Expected Use Of Fincher’s Talents

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:  4 out of 5
Henrick Vanger:  You will be investigating thieves, misers, bullies, and the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet; my family. 
After all the lighthearted fun I have had with the adventure films of December, 2011, it is now time to sink to someplace darker.  The biggest curiosity I have with the self proclaimed, “feel bad film of Christmas,” is how the three groups of people will respond to it.  The groups I refer to are those who have read the books, those who have seen the original films, and those who are completely new to the series.  As The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on the first book in an internationally best selling series, which has already spawned a popular film, there seems to be plenty of elements to consider.  The main reaction I have taken away is that the film is efficiently constructed and features a lot of specific elements that make it very watchable.  I have some issues with this film’s personality versus the original, but at the very least, it is a well done, hard-R film, with an atypical female lead, for those who enjoy dense mystery thrillers.


The film features two lead characters.  One is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a publisher and part-owner of a popular Swedish magazine, Millennium.  As the film begins, Mikael is in the middle of a lot of libel-related trouble involving published allegations he made against a billionaire financier.  In an effort to get away from his troubles for some time, with promise of a way to get his life sorted as a reward, Mikael takes on investigating the disappearance of a wealthy patriarch’s (Henrick Vanger, played by Christopher Plummer) niece.  She disappeared forty years ago, but Henrick is convinced she was murdered and is tortured by her memory, as he receives a token every year from someone he believes to be her murderer.  Mikael is allowed to stay in a small cottage within Henrick’s estate to investigate the various other members of the Vanger family, who may have information to offer.

The other lead in this film is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an independent surveillance agent, who was hired to do a background check on Mikael.  To say Lisbeth had a troubled past would be an understatement.  Currently, she is anti-social, dresses in all black, and adorns herself with piercings and tattoos.  Lisbeth is also a gifted computer hacker, with a photographic memory, making her perfectly well suited for research and problem solving.  Following a detour that revolves around her personal troubles with a legal guardian, Lisbeth eventually teams up with Mikael to help him in his investigation.  Things, to say the least, wind up not being as simple as finding out what happened to just one young girl.


I really do not want to play the comparison game, but it seems like that may be a lost cause.  As one who has only read some of the book series by Stieg Larsson, but has seen all three Swedish films and enjoyed them all (more or less), it is only natural to approach this film within a certain line of thinking.  I really did enjoy the first film a lot, mainly due to the performances from the leads, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist (who are both currently starring in American blockbusters, which I’ll refer to as Impossible Holmes: A Game of Protocol).  I also admired the way that film served as a compelling thriller, brought forth by the moody atmosphere created by director Niels Arden Oplev, which seemed to owe a lot to filmmakers such as David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club).  Now we have the American version of the film, which has been directed by, surprise surprise, David Fincher.

Given that Fincher is a director who I would name off the top of my head as one of my favorite currently working directors, I was completely ready to accept a new film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, regardless of its proximity to the American release of the original film versions.  With Fincher coming straight off of the success that he met with The Social Network, putting him back into the dark and atmospheric place of a murder/mystery film seemed like a fine choice.  What came as a bit of a surprise is that despite how well put together this film is, it feels like there is a lack of Fincher’s own emotion in the direction.

   
I would not go as far to say that the film feels like perfunctory work from someone I consider one of best current working filmmakers, but there was a lot more of a style that seemed fitting to what someone would expect from a Fincher film, as opposed to being hit with a film full of creative stylistic flourishes to further amplify the experience.  I would equate this more to Fincher’s Panic Room as opposed to Se7en in terms of the type of handle he had on making this film his own, although even Panic Room is more visually inventive.  I am putting a lot on to one person, when there are plenty of people to distribute reasoning to regarding my impressions, but maybe it just has to do with my level of expectations at this point when it comes to Fincher.
Mikael Blomkvist:  I want you to help me catch a killer of women.
The film was scripted by notable screenwriter Steven Zaillion (Schindler’s List, Moneyball), who seems to have really treated the source material with a lot of respect.  I say this based on how close I understand the original film to be to the book, along with other things I have heard, such as how the ending of this film plays out.  This new version of the film definitely does not try to trim the fat, which seems to be a problem in all three versions now, as it still clocks in at over two and a half hours; however, thanks to the superb editing work by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, I thought this film managed to fly by pretty smoothly, considering the subject matter.  I noticed a lot of differences in the details here and there and while the film’s story may not contain the greatest of mysteries, I still believe it to be a compelling enough narrative that I appreciated more based on all the tangents that it takes on the way to resolving some of the core plot threads.  It certainly helped that the film did not back down from the hardcore nature of the subject matter and embraced the dark nature of the story being told.  I also really enjoyed the ending, which has a tone fitting of my new favorite T-shirt.


Casting is a bit of an issue, but in interesting ways.  As Lisbeth, Rooney Mara does a very admirable job with what she is required to do.  This is a performance that requires a very strong and independent individual, who has emerged from such a wounded past.  It also requires a level of intimidation, despite existing with a slight body frame.  Given that Rapace’s performance in the original films is their most notable asset, these were big shoes to fill, which Mara almost completely nails.  There is a level of confidence that is not quite the same, but it is still a very good performance that matches well to rightfully being the titular character.  Daniel Craig has the low-key, straightman role in all of this, which he pulls off quite well.  It is a strong performance, which makes up for the fact that he can’t really play down the fact that he is probably the most handsome newspaper investigator in the business.  I did find the chemistry between these two to be a bit forced, which is both something that seems appropriate in who these characters are, but also a problem that may be more due to how the build up to their collaboration had been handled.  Still, these two play well in their roles, as does the supporting cast, which features a serviceable list of character actors.

Before trailing off into too many details, I’ll wrap up with the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have reteamed (after winning an Oscar for their work on The Social Network) to create a score for this film.  While their work here may not have the same inventiveness as on their previous film (similar to my thoughts on Fincher’s direction), the score manages to establish a very particular mood throughout, which helps keep the film fitted together quite well.  Despite my thoughts on the film not having enough to say in order to distinguish itself as something really special, I cannot emphasize enough how this decidedly long features manages to feel very well put together thanks to technical aspects such as its editing, cinematography, and tone appropriate scoring.


My main take away from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that this film exists as pure cinema.  Despite being of a very specific type (Hard R for strong violence, torture, nudity, language), this is a spectacle film made to stimulate movie goers with a desire to see an adult mystery thriller.  It does not feel like a passion project from the filmmakers involved, which is not a bad thing, but it does give me more appreciation for the original, which seemed to have more of a heart for the source material.  This still doesn’t take away from the fact that the American version is a well made feature and one that I am very curious to see how unfamiliar audiences will react to.  Who knows, maybe giant creature tattoos on people’s backs will become all the rage.
Henrick Vanger:  Soon you will know us all too well, with my apologies.

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