Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grade: 82 (A-)

Let’s get this out of the way: the original, Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a good movie. At the risk of irritating the film’s fans (not to mention fans of the book), it’s a dull, overlong “film” (really part of a miniseries) saddled with endless exposition, an uncharismatic lump of a lead (Michael Nyqvist), and filmmaking on par with an unspired procedural show. The only reason to see the film is for the towering performance by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, a violent, antisocial, goth-punk surveillance expert. So when David Fincher, one of the finest filmmakers working today, decided to remake the film, there was nowhere to go but up. How far up? Pretty damn far.

Mikhail Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a reporter for the left-wing magazine Millennium. Convicted of libel while investigating a corrupt businessman, Blomkvist loses most of his fortune, not to mention his credibility. When Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Blomkvist to write his memoirs, he reveals that he actually has something else planned. Vanger’s beloved grand-niece, Harriet, went missing forty years ago, and her killer is most likely someone in Vanger’s hateful family of Anti-Semites. Blomkvist has mountains of possible evidence to go through, but he finds a brilliant research assistant: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a 23-year-old ward of the state who has had to fight monstrous men her entire life (including an abusive caretaker in the first half of the film). Together, they can find out who Harriet’s murderer is, and how her death might be connected to a series of killings in the early 60s.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suffers from some of the same problems the original Swedish version: roughly the first forty-five minutes are devoted to exposition on Blomkvist, Salander, and Vanger’s cases. Fincher and the actors do their best to not make the opening dull, but aside from a dynamite, James Bond-style opening credits sequence (set to the tune of Karen O and composer Trent Reznor’s cover of “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin), the film’s first section is watchable but incredibly draggy. The subject matter, meanwhile, is lurid, pulpy stuff, and doesn’t have the same thematic richness as earlier Fincher movies about serial killers (Seven, Zodiac). At the end of the day, it’s questionable whether or not the story is worthy of the storyteller.

So why is this a highly positive review? Because Fincher is at the top of his game: few directors make procedure more interesting (see: hacking/code writing in The Social Network), and the film makes the long, painful search for truth both draining and enervating at the same time. The most horrifying scenes from the original have been doubled in intensity thanks to far more competent filmmaking, and some of the suspense set-pieces are as frightening as Brad Pitt’s chase scene in Seven or Jake Gyllenhaal’s “creepy house” scene in Zodiac. This is another case of a filmmaker elevating less-than-stellar material into a strong film (see also: Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island).

The performers, meanwhile, are all up to task. Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Steven Berkoff are all perfectly cast, where Craig’s natural magnetism and charisma turns something compelling out of a not particularly well-crafted character.

The highlight, however, is Mara’s Salander. The character has always been the real drawing point of the series, and Mara’s performance is as strong as Rapace’s, if not better. She’s small in stature, but that innate vulnerability hides a ferocity waiting to be unleashed. Mara acquitted herself well last year in the otherwise dreadful remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and in Fincher’s own The Social Network (as the girl who dumps Jesse Eisenberg in the opening). This is a stunning breakthrough performance, and the film works best as a character study of a woman who has shut off nearly all ability to connect to the outside world and who has learned to defend herself in the most savage ways possible. When she finally opens up in the film’s final twenty minutes (a long denouement, but one which expands on her character), it’s all in vain. She is a woman alone, and she might like it better that way.

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