Monday, December 26, 2011

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' -- Fincher's Take

Despite my not having read any of the books, or seen the Swedish films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was still atop the list of my most anticipated films of the year because of director David Fincher. Fincher is one of a small handful of elite American auteurs and also one of my personal favorite filmmakers, so naturally I closely follow all of his projects. And though I had no personal familiarity with the source material, I was aware that it was dark, gritty, pulpy, and intense which is right in Fincher's wheelhouse. Knowing this, seeing the trailer, and being aware that he would again be teaming up with Trent Reznor -- which seems like a much more fitting marriage of material-director-composer than did The Social Network -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo catapulted to the top of my most anticipated list for 2011 (2nd only to The Tree of Life).

To briefly set the table: the film is set in present day Sweden where investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been sued for libel and lost the case. Publicly disgraced, he is contacted by a rich businessman who wants him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, who was 16 at the time she disappeared forty years ago. The businessman and his family live in a secluded area, where members of the wretched family rarely talk to each other, despite all living within earshot of one another. He wants Mikael to apply his keen eye to a collected storehouse of evidence and see if anything stands out to him, all the time suspecting someone in his own family to be somehow involved in the nasty business.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander is a 23 year-old, pierced, tattooed, mow-hawked girl who the state essentially contracts out to people who need her hi-tech savvy and brilliant investigative acumen. After a brutal subplot involving Salander's rape by -- and revenge upon -- the social worker in charge of her finances, Mikael seeks her out to be his partner in attempting to solve the case. With their combined skills, they form an investigative super-team and get to work.

The most interesting, and not immediately obvious, thing about the film is the way that it fits inside of Fincher's oeuvre. Most significantly, the fact that it's his third serial killer film, and the manner in which it acts as a kind of counterpoint to Zodiac. Zodiac was a serial-killer detective procedural that was marked by frustration and failure, where every piece of evidence seemed to only lead to other pieces of evidence which didn't connect, or to complete dead ends. Common human failure and technological limitations of the era were the primary sources of disruption, and the halting but deliberate pacing of the film was reflective of this. By contrast, Dragon Tattoo is marked by a breakneck pace that mirrors the immaculately speedy and efficient detective work on display in the film, which is aided by today's wealth of technological tools that make the '70s look something like the stone-ages. Where Zodiac was a film that depicted human limitation and weakness all too clearly, Dragon Tattoo is an ode to reason and deduction and the rewards that can be reaped from skill and dedication. Instead of every piece of evidence popping up and then promptly disappearing again, every piece of evidence fits into the greater puzzle. Every loose end can be tracked down and tidied up.

And, as exciting as that can make the exploits on screen, it also strains credulity at times. The central crime that is being investigated took place over forty years ago, long before the explosive proliferation of cell-phones with cameras, yet there is an insane abundance of photographic evidence that the investigators are able to collect. So much, in fact, that Mikael is able to create a flip-book with shots from one crucial scene and, without much difficulty at all, track down a shot from another angle on the other side of the street at an important moment. Not that realism is at the top of my list of requirements for a film, but there are still reasonable limits and the film tested them in certain moments.

Fincher puts a great deal of faith in his audience, which I always appreciate, but there is at least one pivotal scene that is a wordless montage which requires reading a bit and following a certain investigative logic that I imagine could lose some people, especially given the speed at which the events unfold. In my case, it just made those sections exhilarating.

Despite the, at times, quite outlandish nature of the material -- not only the superhuman feats of the detectives, but also the almost cartoonishly wicked characters that they come into contact with and scenarios that unfold -- Dragon Tattoo excels as a superbly crafted entertainment. Lisbeth Salander lived up to her billing as an original and iconic character. It's quite difficult to think of any legitimate benchmark for comparison as I've really never encountered much like her in film or literature. She is a creature of an emerging world and something novel.

Shot in actual Sweden, the cinematography is predictably phenomenal. Fincher's trademark cinematic  wizardry is on display throughout, whether it's in the transitions, in the framing of shots in the middle of a blizzard (which may or may not be a CGI creation), or shots of Lisbeth tearing through the streets on her motorcycle, the aesthetic qualities of the films are excellent. Reznor's soundtrack is another subtle, brilliant piece of work, rarely intruding too openly, and always adding a grim layer of texture. Daniel Craig as Blomkvist is the best that I've ever seen him, and Rooney Mara turns in a solid performance as Salander, though at times it seemed that her performance may have lacked a certain intensity. Which, admittedly, is explicable as a product of her lousy childhood, and which may contribute to an air of even greater cloaked intensity. I'm not positive which it is. In any case, Fincher made it work for the film.

As a standalone piece, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another triumph for Fincher who continues to deliver the goods. Seen within the greater context of the work of the artist, specifically as part of a triptych along with Se7en and Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo's standing is elevated even further.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the Swedish film last year and read the second book, then watched the second and third swedish films. The US version is better than the Swedish version in my opinion, though I prefer Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. The differences between the two films makes me want to read the first book even more now. The second book was phenomenal, but the film adaptation was terrible, also prompting my desire to finish reading the series. Oh and Daniel Craig is much better as Blomkvist than the Swedish guy. I'd still recommend checking out the whole series of books and Swedish movies to anyone interested though, as I think everything to do with the series is worth one's attention.