Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Movies -- Reflections on "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)

Don't fuck with Lizbeth Salander!

Having read Stieg Larsson’s novel, and having seen the 2009 Swedish film, I went into David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with an equal measure of high hope and dread. Unlike last year’s remake of Let the Right One In, this movie I had been looking forward to all year. Granted, it’s annoying that Hollywood executives think any successful foreign film needs to be remade for unexposed American audiences (with an underlying assumption that American productions are better), especially since the Swedish film was already terrific and featured a career-making performance by Noomi Rapace as the tortured savant Lizbeth Salander, but I was excited nonetheless because of the people involved. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, American Gangster, Moneyball) are two of the best talents in the industry, and the casting of Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) and relative unknown Rooney Mara seemed inspired. And, of course, the reimagining of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Trent Reznor and Karen O. that played over the teaser trailer earlier this year whet my appetite like the scent of a Christmas ham.

As I left the theater, though, I found myself just as conflicted as when I sat in my seat. On one hand, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an expert mystery/thriller with wonderful performances; on the other, it is cold, frustrating and choppy. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I wanted to love it, and there is much to love about it, but as I reflect on my experience I realize that I wanted something else. But what, exactly?

While the particulars of this story are very complex and convoluted, it is pretty straightforward. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a gifted investigative journalist who finds his world crumbling when he loses a libel case brought against him by a multi-national businessman. Blomkvist finds a chance at redemption when a rich old man named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) asks him to use those incredible investigative skills to uncover the truth surrounding the 1966 death of Vanger’s beloved niece, Harriet. Blomkvist takes the case and finds himself snared in a labyrinthine mystery.

Help comes in the form of Lizbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a misanthropic computer hacker and private investigator. Lizbeth is one of the most interesting heroines you will likely ever see on screen. She is rude, ugly (yet remarkably sexy), and angry, but also shrewd, insanely intelligent, and vulnerable. Mara plays her with the restrained anxiety and ferocity of a caged animal, her eyes constantly darting and surveying, her arms and body clenching in anticipation. Lizbeth always appears ready to spring into action. For as independent as Lizbeth is, though, she isn’t. She is a ward of the state, and when her beloved guardian has a stroke, she is forced into the care of a new guardian, Bjurman, whose intentions are not especially pure and noble. If you’ve read the novel, or seen the 2009 film, you know the dark territory this story explores; if not, just know the movie earns its ‘R’ rating.

The best parts of this film involve Lizbeth. It’s obvious David Fincher feels the same. The movie sizzles when Mara is on screen, and her scenes are loaded with intensity and passion. Lizbeth is so interesting on her own that had Blomkvist not been a part of the story, I doubt I would have minded. The weakest parts of the movie are the sequences involving Blomkvist investigating the death of Harriet Vanger. So much of the story is devoted to exposition that the movie often gets bogged down in names, dates, and times. Fincher does his best to deal with these elements by giving us dramatized snapshots of the past, and by using similar techniques to the ones employed in The Social Network that made computer use feel compelling. Nonetheless, in contrast to the more immediate and darker material of Lizbeth’s story, Blomkvist’s tale feels detached and conventional. I really think if Fincher could have found a way to remove the mystery story without offending a rabid fan base for the book that has made it an international bestseller, he would have done so in a heartbeat.

So, basically, what we have is two separate movies. One is a traditional mystery, the other a dark crime story about an intriguing character. Once the two intersect, the mystery story takes over and Lizbeth no longer feels like a main character, but more of a supporting cast member. As frustrating as that is, Mara’s performance is stellar. She disappears into Lizbeth Salander, and her evolution over the last act of the film is startling in its rawness and vulnerability. This is a star making performance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo definitely frustrated me, but I imagine it will be successful. Most people will go into it not knowing much about the source material – sometimes having less information can make a movie far more enjoyable – and will benefit from it. Fincher’s work is the work of a master craftsman, and the story is thrilling. The performances will be what most people take from it, especially Mara’s, and that is fitting. The movie belongs to her.

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