Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Movie Review

David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s book by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, is the second such adaptation of the novel, the first being a Swedish production from two years ago. It represents the growing trend in Hollywood of taking popular and well-crafted films from overseas and reshaping them for American audiences. Fincher’s version, which should really be considered an alternative adaptation of the book more than a remake, is an expertly made, great looking, moody and atmospheric yet totally conventional thriller. Which is sort of like having the New York Philharmonic perform a composition by a middle-schooler with mediocre musical ability. The conductor is brilliant and his orchestra top-notch, but the music itself insists that we ask why such talents were wasted in pursuit of something so pedestrian.

Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (unread by me), of which this is the first, has a loyal following of readers and if the movie is any indication, you can see why. It’s got all the hallmarks of a popular thriller, plus it’s extra violent and full of misogynistic men (the book’s original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women) for good measure. Fincher and production designer Donald Graham Burt – collaborators on Fincher’s previous three movies – as well as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keep a bleak and wintry look that mirrors the subject matter. Even the most brightly lit interior is decorated in a cold modern minimalist style. The effect is the impression that Sweden is a place I never want to live in and that it is just as dreary as many people believe.

The film suffers from a surfeit of characters, many of whom are present only in description and recounting of past events. The main protagonist is not the ‘girl’ of the title, but Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a recently disgraced journalist who lost a libel suit (and his life savings) to Wennerström, a wealthy businessman. He is given an opportunity to regain his fiscal security and the evidence to bring down his adversary by manufacturing magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, but would have been best portrayed by Max von Sydow). Vanger is one of several patriarchs of a multi-generational Swedish manufacturing empire. He has little time left on this earth and he wishes to solve the mystery of the disappearance and presumed murder of his grand-niece Harriet some 40 years earlier when she was only 16.

Visiting Henrik for the first time on the family’s private island in the north of the country, Mikael gets lost in the description (as do we) of both living and deceased Vangers, who speaks to whom and who doesn’t and whatnot, and where they all reside on the island. Henrik is convinced a family member is responsible for Harriet’s death and after initially laying out the circumstances of the day in question, Mikael moves into a small cabin on the property and begins a detailed investigation, one which many family members, for varying reasons, don’t wish to reopen. Mikael meets everyone in time as the mystery is splayed out, both in the screenplay and in photographs and post-its on Mikael’s wall. The most recognizable actors in the Vanger clan apart from Plummer are Stellan Skarsgaard as Harriet’s brother Martin and Joely Richardson as their cousin Anita, now living in London and having no contact with anyone.

The character I haven’t yet mentioned, and she is the most interesting thing about the film, is Lisbeth Salander, a young savant computer hacker with a troubled history and the tattooed girl of the title. She is played by Rooney Mara, that sweet girl who breaks up with Mark Zuckerberg at the beginning of The Social Network, with equal parts introverted quiet reserve and devastating menace. Her background is presented rather dismally. As a ward of the state she has relied on the kindness of an elderly foster parent whose incapacity from the effects of a stroke leave her at the will of a new guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a sadistic misogynist who is willing to file positive progress reports in return for sexual favors. This leads to an excruciating rape scene that is shot almost as unsparingly as the revenge scene she exacts. Remember Fincher is the director who was unflinching in both Seven and Zodiac when it came time to lay bare to gruesome details. What Bjurman underestimated was Lisbeth’s capacity not only for physical violence, but to discover everything about someone using her skills with a computer.

Her abilities as an investigator supply her with lucrative work at the security firm that investigated Mikael before Vanger would hire him. Upon learning this, Mikael decides she would be an excellent partner to have to aid him in his search. Although she spent most of her teen years in a psychiatric institution, I suppose we’re meant to take it on faith that she somehow developed unparalleled hacker abilities. Some suspension of disbelief may be required, but that’s okay.

The multitude of characters and extended development of Lisbeth leave less room for character development where it matters. We learn little about Mikael’s relationships outside the immediate scope of what the plot demands. His daughter shows up once to illustrate Mikael’s revulsion toward religion and then later to supply a key detail that will break the investigation open: Those codes are Bible verses! His other key relationship is with Erika Berger (Robin Wright), his co-editor at the magazine he’s recently had to resign from. We learn their affair broke up his marriage and has had a deleterious effect on hers, but beyond that we know very little except that he’s willing to come and go when it suits him or the plot.

To call the resolution to the big mystery disappointing is a huge understatement. It not only predictably leads to the discovery of a serial killer (of women, no less), but relies heavily on Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, and turns out to be utterly conventional. Really? That’s what happened? That’s the guilty person? That’s the killer’s motivation? MINOR SPOILER WARNING: Isn’t childhood sexual abuse getting a little bit worn out as a plot mover?

If the film had simply finished after Mikael wraps up the Vanger family drama and truncated the book’s final coda, it might have had a better effect on me. Instead it launches into an unnecessary and somewhat implausibly simplified taking down of Wennerström that involves complicated international travel, hacked bank accounts and large monetary transactions. This all adds 20 minutes to a film that could have been a tight two hours plus and a much better film overall. It’s still difficult to come down hard on the film, though, because Steven Zaillian, who is one of the best studio writers working in Hollywood today, has provided a sharply written screenplay, Rooney Mara is simply mind boggling and Fincher and his technical crew have once again crafted a beautiful looking piece of cinema. And after their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return as composers here, lacing the film with a wonderful electronic score that underscores the tension of the dramatic arc. Their work on these last two Fincher films demonstrates clearly that movie scores don’t have to be all horns and strings. If only their bold originality could have been paired with a better story.

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