Friday, March 23, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Yorick Von Wageningen, Steven Berkoff, Joely Richardson, Goran Visnjic
Running Time: 158 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's a terrible feeling when a highly anticipated release lets you down. It's an even worse feeling when it's made by your favorite director. But in the interest of looking at the glass half-full, David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake is probably as good as it could possibly be and it's easy to imagine a worse result had another filmmaker tried to tackle it. I haven't read author Stieg Larsson's first book in his "Millenium Trilogy," nor have I seen the 2009 Swedish film adaptation that starred Noomi Rapace in the title role. But what's interesting is how little interest I want to after seeing this. And that's not to say the picture is a full-on failure by any stretch. From a direction, production and acting standpoint it's actually outstanding, which leads me to believe the source material is the culprit here, preventing this project from ascending to a higher level. It feels like a David Fincher film. It looks like a David Fincher film. But the soul is missing. Two intersecting stories are being told and while one is moderately successful the other is unmistakably ordinary. The acting and direction almost save the day, struggling to lift the material out of routine thriller territory.   

Disgraced journalist and co-owner of the Swedish Millenium magazine Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a very public libel case brought against him when he's hired by millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his grandniece Harriet 40 years ago. It's a case full of holes and mysteries in which Blomkvist relies on old photographs, notebook scribblings and feuding siblings to unravel the sordid secrets of the dysfunctional Vanger clan in hopes of finding leads. Upon requesting a research assistant, he's given tatooed, body-pierced computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has a history of physical and sexual abuse. A ward of the state due to mental incompetency, she's forced to perform sexual favors for her rapist guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick Von Wageningen) in order to receive an allowance. That is until she breaks free. Cold and untrusting, Lisbeth isn't the easiest partner to work with but she and Blomkvist make an effective team as they inch dangerously closer to discovering the truth about Harriet's disappearance.

It takes almost an hour and a half into the almost 3 hour film before Lisbeth and Blomkvist even meet with much of the preceding time allotted to setting up the mystery and getting to know the leads. With Lisbeth's situation it's time mostly well spent but Blomkvist's investigation and the case is a drag, too often playing like a poor man's Zodiac. It just isn't interesting at all and at times seems completely indistinguishable from a missing persons TV crime drama case. Even more alarming is that none of the plot developments caught me off guard despite having zero familiarity with source material or the original Swedish film. It's also odd the revelations would be so dry, especially considering how cool and edgy the film has been touted as being. Most of that edginess comes when the focus is on Lisbeth and remarkably I had no problems believing the relationship that develops between her and Blomkvist or how quickly it was consummated. In fact, given how psychologically damaged she is and how bored he must have been from investigating this case, it almost seems inevitable.

Mara's performance is about as great as you've heard, sporting a remarkable, unwavering Swedish accent and doing her best to supply depth where there's seems to be very little coming from Steve Zaillian's script. Though I was still unsure at many points how I was supposed to feel about Lisbeth as a character. Regardless of how she's depicted in the novels or original films, I did sense a play was being made to make her increasingly sympathetic to the point of almost being a lovesick puppy as the film entered its final act, which seems at odds with how uncommercial everything else is. Daniel Craig's miscast as a passive bookworm but turns in typically strong work anyway. If anything, this role really highlights the challenges facing Craig in a non-James Bond project since it's inescapably off-putting seeing him play such a non-heroic part, especially in a thriller. I had to keep reminding myself Blomkvist was just a journalist who can't shoot his way out of any situation. Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and Steven Berkoff are given roles of varying importance and quality to the story.

That the film's sole Oscar win for editing is a head-scratcher, unless the honor refers to the least amount of editing. There were many spots during the first hour where I felt certain scenes could have been chopped and tightened for clarity, as it marks the first instance in a Fincher film where copious details don't justify an exorbitant running time or add depth to the story in any meaningful way. This is especially true at the tail end where there's a perfect point to start wrapping up the picture following a chilling sequence that's highlighted by an unforgettably creepy musical moment. But then proceedings drag on for almost a half hour longer. It's bad enough this coda seems pointless, but it's also presented in a needlessly confusing manner, sucking the energy out of the narrative as the film limps past the finish line. Whether it's true to the source material or not, if it wasn't going to be presented crisply then there's no reason to include it. If the editing is close to being a disaster the opposite should be said of Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' haunting score, both of which  compliment the murky atmosphere. The opening credit sequence (set to Karen O and Reznor and Ross's cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song") looks tremendously cool in a high-tech music video type of way, even if I couldn't thinking that was its only purpose. In any event, I'd be crazy to say the movie doesn't look great.

That this all almost still works despite these flaws is a credit to Fincher, who's slumming it here with pulpy material below his talent level. For the first time he actually feels like a hired gun. Here's hoping he doesn't sign on to film the two sequels and moves on to something else as there's nothing left for him to try to elevate here. But he does remain true to form in managing to provoke a strong reaction, even if that reaction is negative. Given the filmmaker, it's always possible I could return to this down the road and come out with a new appreciation, but a single viewing definitely feels like enough right now. There's just very little depth or subtext to the story, which is especially problematic if an actress is going to be put through what Mara is. She hasn't even looked the same since this wrapped and that she's already contractually committed to continuing this is unfortunate. It shouldn't be too much to ask that a film featuring brutal rape and murder have something to say, especially if it's taking up this much time, talent and money. I knew going in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn't be an amusement park ride and didn't want it to be. But what really surprised me was just how little it amounted to.

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