Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Say what you will about some of the films made by David Fincher - and I personally find it easy to say nasty things about Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - but it's hard to say anything bad about the man himself. Even when the material they're working with isn't A-Grade, Fincher and his collaborators craft technically dazzling, stylistically ambitious and effortlessly cool films. When the scripts hit the mark - whether it be Se7en, Fight Club or The Social Network - the results are remarkable. He's almost certainly mainstream American cinema's most compelling directorial voice. And under his watchful eye, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a slick and atmospheric adaptation (Fincher's fourth 'adaptation' in a row). It's that same adaptation part where the problems lie.

This was my third time experiencing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, like many others I'm sure. I read the book - a pulpy but engaging novel with themes and ideas admirably beyond the usual remit for page-turning thrillers. It's easily the strongest of the otherwise unwieldy Millennium novels. Then came the Swedish adaptation - a feature length movie that later reemerged in extended form. It was a perfectly serviceable but rather perfunctory and characterless film from director Niels Arden Oplev: notable mostly for a fantastic performance from Noomi Rapace as the heroine and for being considerably better than the two messy sequels.

A mere twenty months after the cinematic release of the Swedish version, the stench of familiarity lingering over the search for Harriet Vanger is one that Fincher cannot possibly counter. This is the same story yet again: all the 'violence against women', investigative journalism, reclusive Nazis, icy Swedish environments and corporate conspiracies are present and correct. The screenplay doesn't wring any fresh insight or add any new ideas to the mix. There's a handful changes to the overall narrative - a significant revelation has been altered (and is much tidier as a result), and fans of Cecilia Vanger will be disappointed by her significantly reduced role in proceedings. Overall, however, it's an extremely faithful and literal adaptation. To a fault at times: weaker subplots like the somewhat forced arrival of Blomkvist's daughter are still weak here.

The huge amount of material creates some structural issues for Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian. The first hour of the film seems particularly awkward - it feels very episodic as it cuts between Lisbeth and Mikael. It's Ms. Salender who suffers most as a result of this slightly frantic pacing. However, the film hits a confident stride just before it enters its second hour. As the thriller and 'whodunnit' elements take centre stage, the story becomes much more focused and moves along at an exhilarating pace. While the last fifteen minutes or so feel rushed, it's to the film's credit that it feels much shorter than its 158 minute running time. It's a shame that it ends on a sequel-friendly ellipsis rather than a fullstop, but otherwise this is a generally satisfying adaptation of the source material. It is, however, unfortunate that third time around Larsson's tale has lost the ability to surprise and shock.

That said, Fincher - ever the master of tone and atmosphere - tries his darndest to make the audience squirm in discomfort. The iconic sequences are handled with much more style and aplomb here than they were in the previous adaptation. The infamous rape scene is terrifying here: Rooney Mara's high pitched wails are piercing and endlessly upsetting. A later sequence in a torture room features one of cinema's most intense strangulations and a deliriously unexpected soundtrack choice. A Bondesque opening credits sequence (maybe it's stipulated in Daniel Craig's contract?) is also stylistically impressive, even if it makes not a lick of contextual sense. Elsewhere, the snowy Hedestad is beautifully realised, and there are constant visual and editing flourishes (J.J. Abrams pay attention: this is how you do lens flair). Even the exposition scenes are handled expertly, including a content heavy early one that beautifully slips in-and-out of flashback. Cut down from an astounding 400+ hours of RED footage, it more than looks the part. An atmospheric, creepy and very effective score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross helps tie everything together: an overly twinkly 'love' theme (of sorts) sees the soundtrack hit a sole bum note.

Acting wise, the unusual decision to have pretty much everyone speak in dense Swedish accents is one I'm not entirely sold on. Retaining the setting is admirable, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to accents, especially to avoid information being lost during some of the faster or quieter conversations. Still, plenty of acting talent to admire here. Craig surprised me by portraying an extremely charismatic Blomkvist. Stellan Skarsgard is terrific as Martin Vanger. The largely unknown Yorick van Wageningen is a great choice for that deplorable asshole Nils Bjurman. But it's Rooney Mara as the antihero Lisbeth Salander that everyone's interested in. After impressing in a minor role in the Social Network, her performance is admittedly a bit 'blanker' than Rapace's work. However, during the more physically involving (ahem) and intense sequences Mara hits the sweetspot and captures the various contradictory traits of Lisbeth Salander expertly. Her performance is particularly notable for the extreme physical transformation she had to go through - hard to believe this is the same pretty, girl-next-door from TSN.

While I can't deny admiring much of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, another part of me is still slightly disappointed that David Fincher made this instead of something fresher and more original. For all the film's strengths, it falls just short of greatness. Still, since Hollywood insisted on an English-language adaptation, at least Mr. Fincher ensured that it wasn't a worthless endeavour. Overall, it certainly emerges as a stronger, braver adaptation (it would want to be given the $90 million thrown at it), but let's hope this is the final word on a story dangling perilously close to overexposure.

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