Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Not tough enough

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for brutal violent content, rape, torture, strong sexuality, nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.11

David Fincher exhausts all his creative juices on this film’s opening credits.

The director who disturbed us so effectively during Se7en and Zodiac delivers a truly creepy set of credits for his handling of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They unspool like some rancid afterbirth of classic James Bond credits, with oil- and rubber-covered figures, barely human, punctured by various sharp-bladed instruments.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) should be unhappy when he learns
that Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has been eavesdropping on his laptop
activity; indeed, he could have her arrested. But Blomkvist recognizes
investigative talent, and instead asks Lisbeth to help him solve a
40-year-old murder mystery.

Fincher certainly establishes a mood.

Trouble is, he never matches it from that point forward. Yes, this is an uncomfortable, edgy thriller, with Steven Zaillian’s script reasonably faithful to the late Stieg Larsson’s iconic, best-selling novel. But Fincher brings little to the party in the way of visceral oomph; he simply goes through the motions, as if hamstrung by the heavy expectations riding on this project.

As a result, his film remains in the shadow of Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s far more satisfying 2009 version: the first adaptation of Larsson’s book, and clearly the superior effort.

Fincher’s remake simply doesn’t sizzle. At no time does he come close to the suspense he generated with Panic Room, particularly during that tension-laden thriller’s final half hour. The climactic confrontation in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should have the same edge-of-the-seat suspense ... but it doesn’t.

Possibly because — as most definitely wasn’t the case with Oplev’s version — the “big reveal” regarding the clandestine villain’s identity isn’t much of a surprise here.

Zaillian made several intelligent decisions with his script. He clarified the relationship between crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his publisher/partner, Erika Berger (Robin Wright); Zaillian also dumped an unnecessary — and eyebrow-rolling — affair that Blomkvist has with Cecilia Vanger (Geraldine James), once he begins his investigation for her uncle, Henrik (Christopher Plummer).

Unfortunately, by minimizing Cecilia’s involvement and compressing the rest of the extended Vanger family — we only meet them en masse once, during a fleeting scene in a hospital waiting room — Zaillian whittles down the likely suspects to ... well, very few. After all, we can hardly worry about people the script scarcely bothers to introduce.

Oplev and his scripters, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, did a far better job with the various members of the arrogant Vanger clan, and therefore kept us guessing.

That said, Zaillian’s missteps can’t blunt the raw force of Larsson’s powerful novel; it’s a dense, gripping story that revolves around the mesmerizing Lisbeth Salander, certainly one of the great female characters of the early 21st century. Noomi Rapace made a memorable Salander in the Swedish film trilogy; the utterly fearless Rooney Mara gives an entirely different reading here.

Larsson’s massive book juggles several parallel plotlines that converge almost by accident (although not quite so inadvertently, as we learn in books two and three). Fincher’s film begins as Blomkvist, lead journalist for the crusading magazine Millennium, loses a libel suit in court; his lengthy investigation into the activities of a shady industrialist (Hans-Erik Wennerström, played by Ulf Friberg) collapse for lack of evidence.

Truth be told, Blomkvist was played; he knows it, and now it’s going to cost him dearly. The primary concern is whether the magazine he co-founded with his occasional lover, Erika, will be part of the fallout.

In the wake of this very public calamity, lawyer Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), acting on behalf of Henrik Vanger, quietly hires Milton Security to do a full profile on Blomkvist. Milton Security’s owner/manager, Dragan Armansky (Goran Visnjic), hands the assignment to his best “investigator,” the withdrawn, punk-garbed, ferociously anti-social Lisbeth.

She doesn’t like to meet people; Frode insists otherwise. Her spiked hair, multiple piercings and belligerent gaze notwithstanding, he gives her the nod. Good choice: She’s a skilled hacker who never lets legal restrictions — say, the sanctity of one’s personal computer — impede her insatiable curiosity.

Lisbeth, for years a ward of the state — the reasons for which are left unexplored until book two — is faced with her own crisis. Her longtime legal guardian, the benevolent Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson), suffers a stroke; his replacement, Nils Erik Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), turns out to be a deviant who sexually abuses his vulnerable young “clients.”

Blomkvist, meanwhile, has met Henrik, who wants the journalist to solve a very, very cold case. Four decades ago, during a Vanger family gathering, Henrik’s beloved grand-niece, Harriet, disappeared. Her body never was found, but Henrik — all too aware of his family’s sordid behavior — knows that she was murdered. The question is, by whom? And why?

At first mostly dismissed by Henrik’s various relatives — who either embrace or barely tolerate this intrusion as a means to humor the old man — Blomkvist figures he’s getting close when somebody takes a shot at him, while he scouts the island wholly owned by the family.

By this point, as well, Blomkvist has learned of Lisbeth’s clandestine probe into his life; rather than get annoyed, he hires her as a research assistant. The mystery concerning Harriet Vanger has blossomed to include numerous other unsolved murders, all involving women mutilated in gruesome ways, all pointing to a serial killer.

And, more than anything else, Lisbeth Salander is all about unleashing serious vengeance on men who abuse women.

Mara bares body and soul in a part that carries heavy demands, not the least of which is enduring a horrific rape. She handles that persuasively — indeed, agonizingly — and also delivers a withering cold stare that’s laced with latent fury. But — and this is important — her Lisbeth, at rest, looks withdrawn and vulnerable. She doesn’t project the sneering contempt that Rapace wore like a suit of armor at all times.

Additionally, Fincher and Zaillian have made an effort to humanize Lisbeth a bit, most notably during her interactions with Palmgren after his stroke. Mara simply doesn’t have the acting chops to handle the subtleties demanded of this scene; her expression here is much too wooden.

She does much better with the unusual alliance Lisbeth establishes with Blomkvist, the young woman’s instinctive misgivings gradually warming into hesitant trust and then something deeper.

Craig makes a strikingly compelling Blomkvist: wholly believable as a seasoned journalist whose initial reluctance to tackle Henrik’s assignment — what, reasonably, could be done, after so many years? — quickly yields to fascination and even excitement. Blomkvist’s initial afternoon with Henrik is marvelous, with Plummer’s understated recitation of events gradually piquing Craig’s curiosity.

Watch the way Craig fiddles with Blomkvist’s glasses: a casual affectation that speaks volumes about what the man is thinking — and how he feels — from one moment to the next.

Craig also works well with Wright, the two of them conveying a decidedly European attitude toward their “partners with benefits” relationship. (Erika’s husband apparently tolerates the affair.)

James is appropriately frosty as Cecilia Vanger, who wishes Blomkvist would simply go away; Joely Richardson is somewhat more sympathetic as Anita Vanger, who moved away years ago, in order to get away from her poisonous family. Stellan Skarsgård is gracious as Martin Vanger, the missing Harriet’s brother, and Blomkvist’s only other ally in this investigation (aside from Henrik).

Van Wageningen is flat-out repulsive as Lisbeth’s new legal guardian, and Visnjic remains sadly under-used as her employer at Milton Security.

That, in a nutshell, reflects my primary dissatisfaction with Fincher and Zaillian’s handling of this material: They skip or gloss over too many interesting side characters, and also mangle some of the book’s more fascinating plot details. The mystery contained on the final page of Harriet’s little notebook was handled far better in the Swedish film, as was Blomkvist’s startling — and quite clever — discovery of the information concealed within seemingly innocuous parade photos.

Other details seem to go nowhere, as with Henrik Vanger’s financial investment in Millennium: a brief scene with no payoff. (Granted, Fincher could return to this plot point in the next installment ... but it still feels pointless here.)

Another minor point: We never learn why Lisbeth has a dragon tattoo ... nor, for that matter, do we ever see it clearly.

The passage of time, as well, is different in Fincher’s film; everything seems to happen much faster. That’s not necessarily bad, but Larsson — himself a veteran journalist — knew better; his methodical novel acknowledges, indeed calls attention to, the exhaustive months required to probe a mystery this old and convoluted.

On the production end, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth certainly conveys the frozen, desolate nature of the Vanger clan’s Swedish island retreat. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who delivered such a memorable score for The Social Network, work the same magic here; their music, like this film’s title credits, amplifies our uneasy concerns about precisely where this nasty story is heading.

Larsson’s best-selling sales figures notwithstanding, plenty of people will come to this film cold, without having read the book. I’m sure they’ll be engrossed, intrigued and surprised at all the right moments; Fincher and Zaillian deliver a respectable adaptation of a gripping narrative.

But their film doesn’t hold a candle to the Swedish original, and more’s the pity ... because American filmgoers, notorious for hating “foreign movies” and equally unwilling to endure subtitles, simply don’t know what they’re missing.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Derrick. Unless you've seen the Swedish version, you may think the American version is just fine. The Swedish one is well worth the subtitles as you are so engrossd with the film's superb acting and storyline, as it is for the complete trilogy. In the end, you can't get enough b/c it is so captivating. Take the opportunity to see the Swedish one - you won't be disappointed. Don't waste you time and money on the weaker American version.