Dec 26, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

No director could be more perfect than David Fincher to helm this second film adaptation of the book by Stieg Larsson. I have never read the books, because as is the case with most movies, and most fast food chains, I don't do franchises. But I did see the original Swedish movie. Fincher's version is superior, and not just because it is way more expensive; his temperament makes the material more tolerable, at least for me. I happen to think the source material is awful. I understand that the book is a pageturner, but I find the story truculent, morbid, exploitative, mostly humorless and rather pointless. The idea that beneath such a perfectly well-behaved liberal society like Sweden there lie horrid problems (racism, Nazism, sexism -- every evil politically incorrect ism under the sun) is interesting, but I could not discern in either of the movies the contrast between the nice Scandinavian veneer and the dark depths of depravity. The story just piles on the depravity, leaving no room for irony: stacking it up just lessens the impact and evil becomes banal, vulgar and boring. I imagine that for Swedes the idea of a depraved welfare official is subversive, but the biggest problem I have with this story is precisely this segment. This man rapes and tortures his ward, Lisbeth Salander. In both films the rape and her subsequent revenge are depicted gruesomely, for titillation. I love revenge as much as anyone, but I don't appreciate when a rape is shown with supposed moral disgust, yet in a titillating manner. I don't buy the self-righteousness. I think Larsson is just getting off on the violence. He thinks women are going to find Salander's revenge satisfying. I find everything repulsive. 
But now the good news: At least Fincher is such an elegant craftsman, he counters the vulgarity with style. The opening credit sequence (by Blur Studios) is, as always in his films, absolutely stunning. Turns out that Fincher is becoming a great director of actors. The cast is perfect and superb. Everyone is understated, no one is histrionic, not even Christopher Plummer, who's always chewing the scenery (this time he nibbles it politely). It's as if the Arctic cold outside managed to frost everyone's hearts a little bit. Daniel Craig is very good as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He plays the ingenue and he does it charmingly, gracefully and without a trace of self-consciousness. Rooney Mara is excellent too as Lisbeth Salander. I adored the conceptualization of her character; that is, her look: hair, make up, wardrobe are absolutely brilliant. In the first movie, Noomi Rapace looked like an amped-up version of Joan Jett. Just vulgar. But Fincher and Mara go for a much more waifish, elfin look. She is ghostly translucent and looks like a goth spirit from the netherworld. This works better than a butch woman with distracting biceps and spiky hair.  Plus, it's amazing what a pair of bleached eyebrows can do when paired with jet black bangs. This Lisbeth Salander doesn't look good; she looks damaged. Mara's performance is almost silent, all in her gaze and her body language, intense without a hint of hamminess. Inside her tiny, aggressively appointed frame, she harbors vast reserves of suppressed rage. She is totally compelling, and also very brave, with all that aggressive nudity. Another cheer for Fincher: he's probably the only American director to go for it. Yay. I find Hollywood's puritanical avoidance of sex while they are gluttonous for grisly violence very offensive. With Fincher, we get the best of both worlds: his customary grisly tableaux of violence, and nudity. My only wish is that we could see as much of Daniel Craig as we see of Mara. There is always a next time.
The two big villains, Salander's evil guardian (Yorick Van Wageningen, impressive), and Stellan Skarsgard are excellent, relaxed fakers. No mustache twirling here. I was delighted to see the great Steven Berkoff as Christopher Plummer's attorney. Donald Sumpter is great as detective Morell, Joely Richardson is wonderful, everyone is measured and intense and good in this movie.
If only it didn't last almost three hours and was utterly pointless. It is long and meandering (like Zodiac, and Se7en), but one is utterly transfixed by how good it all looks (great work by longtime Fincher cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, less yellow than usual), how like clockwork it all works, by that polished Fincher style that is almost hypnotic in its cool, sharp, detached elegance, in its obsession with investigative detail. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian does the job, although I wonder if there is any way to cut to the chase sooner in this smorgasbord of grotesquerie.
Fincher likes to take his time with procedurals. His pacing is not slow; the plot is long. Still, Fincher stages a short set piece in the subway, where someone tries to steal Salander's bag, (after endless exposition and looking at computer screens) that is totally bracing, beautifully executed, fast, sharp, breathtaking. Also, as he proved with The Social Network, he may be the only guy in the world who can make staring at computers sexy for the audience. The way the images and information appear on the computer screens is beautifully and dynamically presented. This is quite an achievement.
Fincher can also build good moments of tension, two to be precise, and I wished there were more, considering his leisurely stroll in finding the culprit of a crime that happened 40 years ago, that I couldn't care less about. I was entertained by his style, by the fine actors, by everything but the plot.
I used to dislike Fincher's movies because I found them glossy, but hard-hearted and empty. Interestingly, the one movie where he tried his hand at love and feelings, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his worst failure. He should stick to human nastiness. Ever since The Social Network, I'm warming up to him. He has great control, great craftsmanship, and watching his movies is as richly satisfying an experience as buying some very expensive couture item, or going for a spin in a very expensive, shiny, new sports car (none of which I've ever done). The surfaces are enthralling. 

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