REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

1 01 2012

Dragon TattooWhile on the path to triumphant Oscar glory last year, Aaron Sorkin made the wise observation that no matter what movie he chose to do next, it would always be seen as “the movie after ‘The Social Network.’” The same could be said for director David Fincher, snubbed of a much-deserved Oscar for a movie he clearly crafted with an intricate and delicate precision. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is no different as Fincher’s immaculate visual sensibilities dazzle the eye consistently for over two and a half hours; however, it suffers because of its placement in the director’s canon.

Had it preceded the masterpiece rather than succeeded it, there would probably be a river of praise flowing about his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller. But the specter of Mark Zuckerberg lurks insidiously like an elephant in the theater, making any viewer familiar with Fincher’s work consistently aware of the fact that something is keeping the movie from being truly great. Never is there that sense of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing state of total awe that the director has inspired so many times in his previous features. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” may be his first movie that fails to live up to the promise of its trailer. (To be fair, Fincher’s movies always seem to have the BEST trailers.)

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to marvel at in the movie. The story is incredibly engaging, and it gets a great visceral charge from Steven Zaillian’s faithful script and Fincher’s knack for palatable sadism. Taking a 700-page book and compressing into a single movie is no simple task, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is particularly dense on the page with its labyrinthine family structures, concurrent narrative arcs, and taut mystery. Whether it came from Zaillian in the writing or Fincher with editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall in the cutting room, the pacing is a marvel of control, never bloated or convoluted. The 158 minutes go by very quickly as the plot moves along at a nice, even clip.

Yet all of these nice words of praise aren’t indicating a particularly pleasant or easy moviewatching experience. The movie is dark down to its core, beginning with the color of each frame, specially treated and tinted by Fincher in the post-production process. It’s a constant reminder not only of how warped and cinematic the world he presents is but also of how every shot is a work of art with a distinct story in his eye. Aesthetically, it feels like “The Social Network” as he reteams with most of his below-the-line collaborators from that heralded film, most recognizably the smooth, sweeping lens of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and the pulsating digital score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This time, though, their tunes take on a much more guttural, primal edge that adds another haunting dimension to Fincher’s already very eerie film.

Few directors other than Fincher have the technical expertise not to be drowned out by his actors and writer, and the ability to communicate a vision amidst one fiercely committed performance and an intensely lurid storyline. Inspired by author Stieg Larsson’s muckraking investigations into right-wing extremists in Sweden, his books explore the horrors of violent sexual crimes, the depiction of which Fincher and Zaillian hardly shy away from. They make these heinous acts so shocking that you squirm at their raw depictions but exercise enough constraint to keep the audience from simultaneously bolting from the theater.

Of course, these scenes would not have the ability to muster such strong reactions if it weren’t for the fearless work of Rooney Mara. Her Lisbeth Salander, a cyberpunk heroine for a new millennium possessed of true feminine strength, is less acted so much as she is inhabited by the up-and-coming star. Fincher wisely chose a relative unknown for the role so the audience could disassociate the character’s journey from an actor’s reputation, a decision that allows Salander to become an even more iconic character on her own merits – not just borrowing them from the luster of an Academy Award or the dizzying flash of the paparazzi.

Mara makes her pop from the page and never shies away from the paradoxes and contradictions of her character that enticed 50 million people to read the entire Millenium trilogy to get an accurate read on her. She can be scarily powerful with her technological capabilities yet so stirringly vulnerable when physically naked and stripped of all systems of defenses, both when she willingly enters into the act and when she isn’t. One second she will be restrained; the next, sarcastic and spunky. In one scene the victim of a violent crime and in the next a perpetrator of one, the scarily slender Mara makes her just as enigmatic as any reader saw her in the novel.

It is she who propels the narrative for the duration of the film, even when her story seems totally irrelevant to the main plot of the film, Daniel Craig’s falsely convicted libelous journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his investigation into the disappearance of the niece of a wealthy Swedish businessman (Christopher Plummer). The two main characters don’t begin official interactions until about halfway through the movie, but by then, it’s very evident who owns the movie. Whether through her effortless seduction or sly condescension, Craig and the rest of the cast largely stands down to let her give the movie its only sense of kick-ass personality because Fincher checks his wow power at the door.

Between Mara and the now well-lauded production values that all Fincher films boast, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a movie easy to admire and be engaged in. Yet there’s always that pervading sense that he’s always slightly missing the mark, and that very absent something is what keeps Fincher’s latest from making the transition from being really good to great. By all means, this is a movie that could have mangled some guts and formed a painful pit in the stomach. However, the mood as the popcorn and empty sodas get discarded in the industrial-sized waste bins unfortunately isn’t one of satisfaction with what the movie was but rather a slight disappointment knowing what it could have been.  B+ / 



5 responses

1 01 2012

It’s certainly worth seeing if you missed the original. If you saw it, however, there’s no way of unseeing it, and nothing in the new one to top it. Craig and Mara are great here though and Fincher brings so much more to this film like I was expecting too. Good review Marshall.

2 01 2012

Oh, I thought there was SO much more in the new one to top it. Mainly, artistry! The Swedish version was incredibly bland; Fincher outdoes it by miles. But it’s still nowhere near the sensation you get when reading one of Larsson’s book.

1 01 2012
Matt Stewart

Excellent review! I don’t much care for seeing this one until it is on DVD, I must prepare myself for how supposedly “sick” it’s going to be 😉

Awesome blog, great to see you are a LAMB member!

3 01 2012

I actually liked this version better than the original. I found Mara more aproachable than Rapace. Also the lack of subtitles was a big bonus. On the downside the ending seemed rushed.

3 01 2012

Kind of agree about the ending. Don’t know where I read it but someone wrote that it was kind of fruitless to pursue three different endings.

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