REVIEW: Fincher, Without Showing Too Much, Makes a Beguiling Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
American versions of foreign films are almost always put in the position of having to swagger onto the scene, justifying their existence almost before they even exist. But when news hit that David Fincher was making a Hollywood version of Stieg Larsson's explosively popular novel Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I didn't hear anyone breathe a sigh of regret; the mood seemed to be one of cautious anticipation.
That may be because even though all three of the Swedish films based on Larsson's Girl trilogy made it comfortably to these shores, only the first of them -- directed by Niels Arden Oplev -- managed to ignite much enthusiasm among critics and audiences. That first Girl movie was efficient even within its pokiness, although its excessive grisliness and fanatical obsession with forensic photos didn't make it particularly exciting, just unpleasant. Oplev had left Fincher plenty of room for improvement, or at least room for something different. Now, with his own Dragon Tattoo, Fincher brings us a picture that's meticulously made and yet doesn't come off as if it's trying too hard. The Fincher version doesn't actively negate the presence of the earlier one -- it doesn't have to -- but its confidence and bravado are like a strong blast of sunlight with the ability to fade the memory of whatever came before.
That's partly because Fincher -- along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian -- knows his way around a complicated thriller and partly because of his lead actors, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Craig plays magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist; when the movie opens, he's just been hit with a libel verdict after sticking his nose into powerful people's business, an impulse that shapes his life's mission. Not long thereafter, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of a sprawling, chilly, mysterious family, enlists the journalist's help in finding out what happened to his niece, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1966, at age 16. Blomkvist begins by questioning various Vanger family members -- from prim, cross-wearing Celia (Geraldine James) to convivial, wine-pouring Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) -- until his peregrinations bring him into contact with the bleached-eyebrowed, multi-pierced Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara), a hacker extraordinaire who's already hip to nearly everything about him, including the extracurricular activities he engages in with his editor at the magazine, Erika (Robin Wright). When quizzed by a third party about Blomkvist's sexual exploits, Lisbeth delivers her capsule review in a monotone: "Sometimes he performs cunnilingus -- not often enough, in my opinion." She pronounces that initial "o" (for "orgasm," maybe?) as if it were a word unto itself.
If you've read Larsson's book, or even if you've just seen Oplev's film, you know how it all ends. But Fincher makes whatever plot details we have stored away inconsequential: His picture is all about movement as opposed to action, though it has some of that, too. Why do characters go where they do, say what they do? Fincher nudges us along, stoking our voyeuristic impulses, sometimes making us care about characters and plot developments almost in spite of ourselves. He's not particularly fixated on gloomy Swedish landscapes (although when he and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth train their eyes on those bummed-out, puffy-cloud skies, they do look pretty foreboding). Instead, Fincher makes it his business to read faces: Although it's taken a while, Fincher has become more of a people person as a filmmaker. If Se7en and Fight Club were mostly about jolting us with killer style (to some of us, it was empty style), something else seemed to emerge in him around the time of Zodiac, a deeper interest in human frailty and hubris and all the ways of expressing it. That's better for actors: Jesse Eisenberg, in particular, blossomed under Fincher's attention in The Social Network, and while Craig is probably seasoned enough, and good enough, not to need tremendous amounts of hand-holding, he still thrives in the environment Fincher has created in Dragon Tattoo.
Craig has one clear advantage over Michael Nyqvist, the actor who played the same character in the Swedish Girl movies: He has erotic charisma to spare, as opposed to Nyqvist's perfunctory, doughy sexuality. But in addition, Craig has a face that comes with a conscience attached. (He was phenomenal in Jim Sheridan's ill-fated horror thriller Dream House, a picture that, sadly, went wrong in a million different ways, though it had more morose, atmospheric beauty than perhaps any movie released in 2011, with the exception of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.) As Blomkvist, Craig is equal parts driven and tortured. As his investigation takes him deeper into dark, dank corners of sexual torture and murder, Blomkvist seems to realize how little he can do to help. But instead of hampering him, that knowledge spurs him on -- it's a special brand of enterprise born of despair, and Craig plays it with doleful intensity.
Mara's Lisbeth is his natural counterpart, a rational being whose compassion for victims past, present and future manifests itself as diffuse fury, a fuzzy dandelion head with darts where the seeds should be. Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth was the best feature of the three Swedish Girl pictures, which otherwise decreased in relevance until the trilogy trickled to a close. Mara doesn't replace the Swedish actress so much as reinvent her flinty directness. She also has a nose for what's cruelly funny: About to get her revenge on a man who has victimized her, she intones, "Lie still. I've never done this before. And there will be blood." She's like a ghoul hovering over his new bride on the wedding night.
One of the most remarkable things about Fincher's Dragon Tattoo is how violent it isn't, at least in terms of what he's willing to show. He's not out to shock or titillate, nor does he go out of his way to underscore the feminist revenge fantasy element of Larsson's material (he doesn't have to). The Swedish Girl pictures took an unseemly glee in repeatedly pushing forensic photographs right in front of us, front and center. Fincher shows us evidence of these diabolical sex crimes far more discreetly, without undermining their weight. We see pictures clicking by on a computer screen so quickly that we can barely tell what we're seeing -- then again, we just know. The movie's central rape scene is candid and horrifyingly intimate, without stepping over the line into sick prurience. But Fincher has a sense of humor, too, at least sort of: He orchestrates the finale with an operatic kick that's sick-funny, reminiscent of Tom Noonan undulating -- with that damned stocking pulled halfway over his face -- to "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" in Michael Mann's scary-as-heck Manhunter. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't trying to be a great work of movie art; instead it succeeds as a sharp piece of entertainment craftsmanship. The ripples of pleasure and dread it generates are nearly indistinguishable.
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