Friday, December 23, 2011

Law & Order Swedish Victims Unit: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

There are now three versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a cold case mystery that introduces the character of Lisbeth Salander, crack researcher, expert hacker, stoic goth loner abused by father figures and bureaucracy. She’s quite the character, but the story she’s trapped in isn’t worthy of her. First told by author Stieg Larsson in a wordy piece of pulpy fiction, then adapted into a lifeless transcription of a film in Sweden, the material has landed in Hollywood hands. Director David Fincher, with Se7en, Panic Room, and Zodiac, has more than proved that he knows his way around a thriller. Now he’s made what might be the best possible version of Dragon Tattoo. That’s not to say it’s good, necessarily, but it's compelling. He can’t quite overcome the shallow, overcooked, and problematic nature of the story, but he gives it his best shot.

The bare bones of the plot are probably familiar by now, even for those who have yet to experience them, simply because of the story’s cultural presence. For those who’ve yet to hear, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the story of a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who is hired by an elderly industry titan (Christopher Plummer) to help write his memoirs as a cover for reopening a decades-old case of a missing girl. It’s actually a terrific variation on the locked room murder mystery at its core. The man and his relatives all work for the family company and all live on the same little Swedish island which is accessible from the mainland only by a single bridge. Forty years ago, his grandniece vanished without a trace during a company picnic that happened to be on the day a car wreck left the bridge impassable.

He concludes that a member of the family is to blame, but in all this time hasn’t been able to figure it out for himself. That’s why journalist Mikael Blomkvist rides into town to pour over the details the old man has compiled over the decades. It’s a complicated task, especially since many of the suspects still lurk about the island. After all, this is a family that counts at least two former Nazis amongst their ranks, not to mention alcoholics, mysterious recluses, and anti-social grudge-holders, characters with all kinds of signs that point towards danger. Blomkvist decides to hire a research assistant and that’s when the tattooed girl roars into the picture.

We’ve met Lisbeth already, though. We’ve seen some of her sordid backstory, been introduced to her pierced face, inked body, and her stare of vacant intensity. In the Swedish version, the role went to Noomi Rapace who was so good, it’s a shame the films couldn’t match her. Here, she’s played by Rooney Mara, the girl who dumps Zuckerberg in the opening scene of Fincher’s Social Network. She’s not quite as good as Rapace, but that’s a tall order isn’t it? She certainly looks and sounds the part, a boyish young woman, an emaciated pale punk with wild hair, furrowed brow and flat affect. That she doesn’t much resemble the real Mara represents only a commitment to the optics of the role. That she makes it work dramatically to the extent that she does is what makes her performance somewhat noteworthy. This very well could become the kind of role like James Bond or Hamlet that can more than survive recasting.

Working from an adaptation penned by Steven Zaillian, Fincher finds room to put his own personal stamp on the material. (And I’m not just talking about the great inky black semi-abstract opening credits that play out like the coolest Bond credits never made). There’s still Larsson’s messy anti-misogyny message, but Fincher adds to it his love of observing processes and his love of the physical acts of investigation and technology. Here’s a movie about a cold case in which the mystery will be solved by typing, scribbling notes, scanning photographs, sticking tacks in maps, flipping through dusty old albums, and pouring over archived company records. Add to that characters who are constantly getting on trains, roaring around on motorcycles and in cars, lighting up cigarettes, getting dressed and undressed, buying supplies, and looking about fidgeting with nervousness. Fincher shoots such actions with a crisp, energetic monotone montage creating a film that exudes style with every shot. The simmering electronic-infused score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sizzles underneath the scenes, pushing forward the chilly imagery of Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography that seems to capture both the ice in the wintry setting and within the characters dark, cynical hearts.

There’s a real cinematic liveliness to the film that the Swedish version could never match. The griminess of the original source material remains, however. A particularly horrifying rape scene that played out with disgusting detachment in the first film adaptation is nearly handled better here. Salander is attacked and thrown about. The door closes. The screen cuts to black. I breathed a sigh of relief that was cut short when Fincher brings us back inside the room for just one more look. It’s the material’s most problematic moment for me. The scene’s an unseemly, unnecessary lingering on sexual violence in what is otherwise awfully cheap, standard mystery stuff. Sure, Larsson wanted to make a point. After all, the original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women. But here, an otherwise strong, complicated character is brutally victimized not just by an uncomplicated attacker, but by the very story she’s trapped in. Fincher does what he can with it, but it’s still majorly problematic.

It’s to Fincher’s credit that this story, which I’m getting quite bored with by now, still held my attention. There are some very smart changes that he and Zaillian made to the material that improved the viewing experience, streamlining both the mystery and the emotional payoffs, such as they are. What I enjoyed best were the unexpected little flourishes of detail, especially in the lengthy climax that begins in a serial killer’s secret kill room wherein, stocked amongst the weapons of death and torture, one can find a bottle of Purell and an Enya album. The conclusion continues with a propulsive and satisfying (if oddly out-of-place) sequence of financial revenge I found myself thinking of as the “Lisbeth Salander: International Woman of Mystery” television pilot. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he? She’s such a fascinating character that I’d love to see her put to use in a plot that’s less familiar, constricting and punishing. 

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