Wednesday, January 4, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'

The "I'm James Bond" line doesn't work on her.

The last time David Fincher made a crime film, it was the vastly underrated Zodiac, a film about obsession made with obsessive precision. There, the challenge was making a convincing, gripping crime thriller without a truly satisfying ending. Now, as he tackles the first novel in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s ultra-bestselling trilogy, the challenge seems to be making a convincing, gripping crime thriller that seemingly everyone always knows the ending to.

A sizeable number of people who go to see Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are there to either prove that the book is better, or to prove that the 2009 Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace is better. As with any film popularly termed a “remake,” skepticism is the prevailing moviegoing attitude. But there are remakes and there are adaptations, and Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) have made a film that is decidedly the latter. Their Dragon Tattoo mines Larsson’s often overstuffed book for what’s best in it – the deepest, darkest, juiciest parts – and the result is a compelling, often harrowing thriller.

After a court case damages both his reputation and his financial future, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) retreats from his life in Stockholm to take an intriguing but seemingly futile assignment. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy but fading tycoon with a family full of dark secrets, recruits Blomkvist to attempt to discover who murdered his great-niece Harriet on the family’s remote island some 40 years earlier. Her body was never found, no suspect has ever been narrowed down, and there are few clues.

As Blomkvist dives into his assignment, we get to know Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), Larsson’s iconic character, the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s a computer hacker and surveillance expert doing research work for an investigation firm, but she doesn’t enjoy visiting the office. She’s different, as her employer says, “in every way.” Her body is a mass of pale flesh, ink, piercings and awkward, often paranoid movement. She doesn’t get along well with other people, and mental issues have made her a nearly permanent ward of the state.

Lisbeth’s early struggles in the film center on her relationship with her new state-appointed guardian. She was friendly with her old one, but a stroke incapacitated him, and now she’s stuck with Bjurman (Yorick  van Wageningen), a slimy man who forces her to trade sexual favors for access to money in what are among the most excruciating scenes you’ll ever see in a mainstream American film.

As Blomkvist interviews members of the Vanger family, including Henrik’s great nephew and Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), he feels his work on the case deepen and broaden. He asks for a research assistant, and the family lawyer recommends Salander (she did the background check on him). The unlikely pair meets, Salander agrees to help, and they set out on a mission to catch the killer who murdered not just Harriet, but a number of other women throughout Sweden in a series of bizarre, religion-motivated killings.

Dragon Tattoo is a dense web of story packed with characters, chronology, clues and dark themes centered on darker deeds. The filmmaker who can successfully commit it to the screen needs patience, and Fincher has it in plenty. For more than two hours he deliberately and skillfully constructs a mystery, building it to a crescendo with gorgeous photography, an outstanding cast and the precise intensity that defined his work on films like “Seven.” Zaillian aids in this effort with his beautifully honed screenplay, drawing out all the details of the story that make it powerful, while paring down what’s unnecessary. It’s a master class in true adaptation.

The search for an actress to play Salander made national entertainment headlines. Every actress even close to the right age seemed to be vying for the role. Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightly and even Harry Potter star Emma Watson wanted the part. Fincher picked Mara out of this star-studded field, a virtual unknown who he worked with briefly on The Social Network, in part because he didn’t want the stigma that came from placing a big star in such a distinctive and rough role. Scarlett Johansson as Salander would never have been Salander. It would have been Scarlett Johansson with black hair and a few fake tattoos. But as you watch this film, it becomes clear that he also picked Mara because she owns this character.

Mara vanishes into Salander’s skin with a fearlessness that matches Fincher’s own. She maintains a constant intensity without ever once overacting, and her performance is often so subtle that you can’t see that she’s changing until after she’s deep into a new phase. Salander may seem like an archetype, but there are deeper things to explore here, and Mara nails that search time and time again. She understands this role, she embraces it with courage and confidence, and she rules this movie, which is no small feat considering every other member of the cast – including Craig – is performing at the top of their game.

Though it might be too slow for some, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a rewarding experience for those with the patience and the stomach to experience it in full. David Fincher has once again proven that he deserves his place among America’s best filmmakers. Forget everything you might have been expecting and just experience this film. Dragon Tattoo is bold, dark, rich with detail and honed to an almost laser precision, and never once does it feel exploitative or even close to a remake. If you want to see a master director bringing all his powers to bear on a massively talented cast and an internationally renowned story of uncompromising brutality, don’t miss this film.


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