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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Release Date: 12-21-2011)

        David Fincher is a master, but that doesn't mean that everything he touches is a masterpiece. Fresh off the heels of The Social Network, a movie that myself and others seem to think is pretty alright, it's easy to confuse Fincher with someone like who hits it out of the park every time, but proof otherwise is right there in front of us. Praise Fight Club and Se7en all you want, but no worship of those films will make Alien 3, The Game, or Panic Room anything other than largely forgotten efforts, and depending on who you are, you might just find The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be a hokey and over-long bore (I'm on it's team, but I've heard it beat down more times than I can count). No, Fincher is not, in and of himself, a promise of a good movie. It all comes down to the material he's given, and whether it befits him or not, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's seedy, depraved worldview seemed like it would slip on like a glove.

        The protagonist of the story, at least in Fincher's version, is not the titular heroine, but rather Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist who has just resigned from his job in the wake of having wrongly smeared the reputation of a local tycoon. He's summoned to the estate of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a gracious, aging gentleman with one last wish; To unlock the mystery of what happened on a fateful day 40 years ago, when his niece inexplicably went missing forever. The extended Vagner family, made up of former Nazis and generally ill-behaved house guests, all have homes within eye sight of Henrik, but none of them speak to one another, largely because of the fleeting suspicion that one of them is to blame for the girl's disappearance. Mikael travels from home to home, having conversations and looking through records, before deciding that a partner in crime will be necessary. Nothing could prepare him for the research assistant he finally gets; The tattooed, pierced, and fiery Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), as brilliant at hacking computers as she is awful at gentle small talk. Her verve and grit pull the two further down into mysterious hell that is the Vagner family tree.

        I have no previous experience with this story, having not read the phenomenally popular books, nor seen the original Swedish films, but I can now tell you that this one's a doozy. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, Dragon Tattoo is a ridiculously dense murder mystery, one that would almost undoubtedly require multiple viewings (or previous experience with the material) to fully understand. It's also, well, kind of totally horrific in spaces, indulging in extended sequences of rape, torture, violence, and general abundance of sin. Where most film-makers would only imply the kinds of atrocities that take place during the film's runtime, Fincher chooses to revel in them, putting many of their dreadful details on full display. It's a brave choice, but there's an inescapable sense that much of this explicit content exists largely to brand the movie as edgy and fearless, rather than actually aiding the story at hand. Specifically, rape and sexual abuse are pretty charged and graphic images to put on screen, and Fincher's total aversion to simple implication renders a few of his scenes sickening, and almost unwatchable. It's easy to applaud him for, 'going there,' but I'm still working through the, 'why,' of so many images of tortured, powerless females.

        My best guess, at this point, is that this has more to do with the book than Fincher's specific take. The most damning evidence? Given his track record with structure and pacing, I simply don't buy that anything other than loyalty to source material could have caused the beginning of the movie to transpire in such poorly-plotted fashion. The first hour or so is spent cross-cutting between Blomkvist's search for the answers, and an entirely unrelated story wherein Salander is abused by a state official who, much to Lisbeth's misfortune, is now in change of her funds. Everyone knows that two and a half hours is not an ideal runtime for a film, and the fact that a good chunk of it is spent on something that has no real baring on the story at hand has just got to be the book's fault. One could argue that this is all character development, but if the fleshing out of Mikael's character (and that of almost every character from every story ever told, for that matter) can happen within the confines of the established plot, why can't Lisbeth's? The answer can be found in the original Swedish title for the book, Men Who Hate Women. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in this incarnation as well as (I would imagine, at least) previous versions, wants to talk about the evils that women experience at the hands of men, but it doesn't have anything to actually say on the matter. The heinous and skin-crawling crimes displayed on screen, as well as the foolish initial story structure, come as a result of not realizing that being edgy isn't the same thing as being important. No matter how hard it wants to mean something, Dragon Tattoo, on this evidence, is a pretty hollow story.

        But that doesn't mean that it's not a good pot-boiler, one to which only the most expert craft has been applied. There are lengthy stretches in the middle of the film that are just electric, drawing the audience into the mystery by giving them just the right amount of information at the right time. Many of Fincher's Social Network cohorts are again in attendance here, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth once more painting the screen in icy, wintery blue, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross serving up another film-defining score. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall are also here, but struggle with how exactly to pace and fit this thing together. Craig plays the straight-man with efficiency, looking haggard and adding smart little character ticks to fully flesh Blomkvist out. But the real treasure here, the real reason to see the movie, in fact, is Mara's performance as the wrong girl to mess with. You can almost feel the heat lofting off of the screen, the smoke billowing from her nostrils, and the scenes when she's finally permitted to breath fire are nothing short of magnetic. Her tiny body, appearing even smaller in her ever-baggy clothes, can somehow tower over men of greater stature, proving terrifying, sexy, damaged, and badass. The manner in which she confuses all of these emotions is mesmerizing, justifying this movie's existence all by itself. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, in my eyes, something of a throw-away entertainment, but its one crafted with a master's touch, and featuring one of the most impressive, iconic performances of the year. That's not enough to place it with the best of Fincher's canon, but its plenty to recommend a viewing.

Grade: B

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