Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's take on the massively popular The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo phenom is a slick, glossy tale of nihilism and sadism, all with the pre-packaging of an exploitation flick masquerading as feminist fantasy.  That being said, he is the best suited auteur for such an undertaking.  The thriller procedural, based on the bestselling novels (and already the source for another popular film franchise; the clunky Swedish films directed by Niels Arden Oplev) starts with a teasingly abstract opening credits sequence, with a Karen O. doing her now-famous cover of the Led Zeppelin tune "Immigrant Song."  It's all splashy and dark, grinning with the impending violence and thrills to come-- Fincher has always had a gift for starting his films with the most precise mood, and here it feels like he's both showing off and having a ball.  And as ridiculous as it may sound for a film that's so sinister, there is a certain joie de vivre in watching it-- for the story and elemental mystery that rests at the center of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is really just a hyped up, R-rated version of a TV crime drama mashed up with a little Euro-spliced Silence of the Lambs matted with slight and out-dated political commentary.

Yet Fincher seems aware of this, as does writer Steven Zaillian, for the rooting factor of the series rest not of invention of story, but rather the titular lady.  The goth-agnst-ridden-punkette Lisbeth Salander has become a certain kind of icon, a variation on the women in jeopardy\women who kick ass sub-genres-- for she's a total mess, but sly and smart.  The best upgrade from the first feature to Fincher's take is the upping of the ante of her character study.  And while the original films starred the interesting Noomi Rapace-- the best decision upgrade is in the casting of Rooney Mara; she was the girl who called Mark Zuckerberg an asshole in the first scene of last years The Social Network.  Wirey and mousey, the starkly pale Mara gives an electrifying performance, one that not only elevates the film, but marks a seething impression.  She imbues her Lisbeth with such ripe timidity and rage it's startling and scary, until one gives in and falls for her anyway.  A violent, anti-social ward of the state (stemming from a doomed childhood, and bouts of lethal malevolence), Lisbeth is a hacker and feels like a stand in not only for the over-caffeinated, computer geeks of the world, but also the rebels of punk past, presented with her choice in hair styles, thrift shop clothing, and multiple piercing and tattoos.  She's an odd character, but Mara gives her such texture and expressiveness (she's even more haunting when trying to remain perfectly still), that however Lisbeth may or may not be defined by her authors creator, the late Stieg Larson, she feels almost complete.

It's a bit of shame that it takes the film so long to pick up the pieces that most of us by now can see coming.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with its two leads-- the other being Daniel Craig as discredited journalist Mikael Blomkvist, takes its sweet time in strolling through its narrative.  It takes the film over an hour for our heroes to even meet.  What feels like endless exposition, despite featuring some incredible sequences and accomplished acting, as Blomkvst, dour and near financial ruin, accepts an assignment to investigate to the forty-year old murder case of Harriet Vanger, who was likely killed by a member of her eccentric and vindictive family, one of the richest and most lofty of all of Sweden, but most of us already know about that.  As we chart Lisbeth's life pre-Blomkvist, and her troubles with her new guardian, a tubby misogynist.  Fincher has great fun with the set-ups, as well he should, as he is totally within his wheelhouse with a story so grimy and dangerous-- he's one of the great stylists currently working in cinema; it's just a shame that generica of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's premise doesn't match his nor his actors panache.

At the very least he's lightened up the sodden Swiss version, with a bit more humor and firmer hold of the treacly relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael-- the two of course bed early after meeting, but there's both a sort of tenderness and awkwardness to their rapport that feels more appropriate, given age, background, and the fact that Lisbeth, despite her talents and scarily fit photographic memory, is a bit of a loon.  Mara is whip smart with the selective words she always her Lisbeth to say, but with the soft and pleasing Swiss accent, and always ironic eye roll, the most joyful and frightening part of the feature is her teasing but succinct line readings, off set by an ever smooth performance from Craig.  The film meanders, as it must, in solving the mystery of the Vanger clan, and adheres close enough to the original material, so as not to offend the devout, while Fincher and team gently crack the artifice of built-in franchising.  However, little can really be done with the case itself, it's solved before it's cracked.

What needed a bit more finessing was the excess of this overly long feature.  At two-hours and thirty-eight minutes, it felt unfathomably interminable for the last stretch of the film, where it diverges from the source, and decides it doesn't want to finish.  I'm fairly convinced that Fincher and team are still working on the film for there's more multiple endings that damage the small and graceful closing shot.  What starts and promises as a swift thrill ride, ends as a meandering and slow stroll through Fincher's angry mind.  B

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