Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Movie Review

I’m not a fan of Steig Larsen’s ludicrously popular (I say that selling more than 27 million copies counts as ludicrous) “Millennium” trilogy—which kicks off with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. In fact, I dislike them immensely. I find the books tedious, poorly written, in desperate need of an editor’s sword, and, perhaps worst of all, boring as all hell. I have similar feelings about the Swedish film adaptations of these same novels. As a result, I’ve been rather indifferent to the build up for the American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the self-proclaimed “feel bad movie of Christmas”. Still, I feel like somewhere, buried deep down inside, there is the potential for a decent movie based on these books. The set up, story, and characters are all interesting, and if anyone can salvage the remains and fashion them into an entertaining film, it may very well be David Fincher, a director with a knack for infusing left-of-center projects with a pop sensibility.

And Fincher, with a big assist from stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, does just that. He crafts a film that is, in my opinion, exponentially better than either the book or the original adaptation. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is far from perfect, but worlds ahead of the other versions. On the surface, things are similar, as Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian stay close to the details and structure. Perhaps the biggest leap forward is that they manage to humanize the characters, to make them personable so you root for them and actually give a damn what happens to them. Talking with a friend after the screening, neither of us remembers laughing during the original, but there are definite—though not many—moments of levity here, which goes a long way towards drawing the audience in.

Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading Swedish journalist who has been recently, and very publicly, disgraced. His credibility now in shambles, he accepts a job from Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an aging industrialist. Henrik wants Blomkvist to solve the 40-year-old disappearance, and assumed murder, of his niece, Harriet. The crime changed Vanger’s life, and indelibly altered the course of his family, a collection of wealthy miscreants, recluses, and Nazis who are the sole inhabitants of a secluded island. To help him in his mission, Blomkvist enlists the help of waifish, but tough-as-nails computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Mara).

At its core, “Dragon Tattoo” is a mystery, with a little taste of revenge thrown in for good measure, and primarily follows two narrative threads. First is Blomkvist’s attempt to unravel Harriet’s vanishing, scouring the evidence to find new leads in a case that has been combed through over and over again. Lisbeth’s story plays out parallel to the investigation. The victim of lifelong sexual and institutional abuse, at 24, Lisbeth is still a ward of the Swedish government. Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a corrupt lawyer who forces sexual favors in exchange for things like money for food and rent, oversees her case. Armed with a tattoo gun and video camera, she sets out on a mission of revenge, and attempt to right some of the wrongs Bjurman has done in the world, though in the process she gets more than she expects. This thread is grim and not always easy to watch—Bjurman is one of the more despicable characters in film, and will make your skin crawl.

The performances are what distinguish this version of “Dragon Tattoo”. Instead of a uni-dimensional journalist with a cause, Craig brings a defeated charm and affability to Blomkvist. When the film begins he is beaten, knows it, and approaches his situation with a resigned gallows humor that belies his drive, singularity of focus, and obsession with truth. Lisbeth is broken, scarred, and wounded—as her boss says, she’s different “in every way”. By her very nature she has to be standoffish and guarded, but Mara steeps Lisbeth in vulnerability as well as rage. More than simply understand her, you feel for, and with her. In this version she is more complete as a human being. She grows on you as the film progresses, and it becomes fun to watch her isolated weirdo character develop a rapport with Blomkvist’s smooth talking reporter.

Atmosphere and ambiance are vital to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Even in slow moments the film is visually and sonically interesting. Fincher moves the camera in unexpected ways, giving an edge even to a scene where Lisbeth reads through stacks of old corporate documents. Each facet has unique color scheme; flashbacks to happier times are shown in warm, fuzzy colors that contrast with the rainbow of shades of gray that comprise the desolate winter scenes in the present. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross runs from plucked strings that sound almost like a ticking clock, to jarring techno, to shrill static that evoke screams of pain and fear. All of these elements and more come together to create the bleak, sinister tone of the film, which might be its greatest success.

The biggest knock against “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the structure. Because this is obviously the first part of a franchise—and given the popularity of the books I can’t imagine this won’t be a huge box office success—Fincher stuck to the story as laid out in Larsen’s novel. But there are some things that could have been streamlined. Too much time is spent on Blomkvist and his co-publisher, played by Robin Wright; and his daughter is in the movie for one reason, to drop an important plot point at key moment. Trimming some of this could have provided some much needed clarification. Harriet’s murderer was one of the Vanger clan, and Blomkvist’s mission is ostensibly to discern which one. The problem is that the family members are introduced in one information- dumping scene of dialogue, so there is nothing to differentiate them, and as they pop up throughout the film you struggle to remember which is which. Then after the primary thrust of story ends, there is a clumsy, tacked-on epilogue. The cathartic moment comes and goes, the mystery is over, the tension dissolved, and the movie should be over. But no, they keep you there while they awkwardly set up the sequel.

In the end “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is far from perfect. But it is a grim, depressing, and decently entertaining addition the holiday cue. Think of it as a cure for all the optimistic, let’s-all-hug-it-out-and-feel-good movies this time of year brings out. “Dragon Tattoo” is an inconsistent ride, but definitely one worth taking.

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