Saturday, December 24, 2011



- Being only mildly familiar with the "Millennium Trilogy" of books and with the earlier Swedish adaptations, I went into the new David Fincher version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with an open mind and a genuine curiosity about the material. I'd heard so much hype about the series - I even read a fairly fascinating article in Rolling Stone a while back, about the life and times of author Stieg Larson - but I still didn't quite understand what it was about this series that seemed to captivate so many people. Now that I've seen the new film, I get it, and I am onboard. Not so much because the particulars of the mystery here are that interesting, or because of some sort of overarching mythology that is particularly gripping - but because of this fact: Lisbeth Salander is one hell of a character. The #1 reason to check out this film, even more so than the typically-great direction from Fincher, is that Rooney Mara as Lisbeth is, in my mind, a revelation. True, I went into this a blank slate, so I can't compare with the novels or with Noomi Rapace from the Euro-version. But I came away from this one fairly blown away by Mara and excited to see more of the adventures of Lisbeth. So yeah, as a self-contained movie, I can see some flaws here. But as an intro to this character and the dark world she inhabits, Fincher and Mara knock it out of the park.

Overall, this is definitely a movie that ebbs and flows. The whole epic affair kicks off with an incredible bang, with Fincher cutting loose with a mood-setting intro set to a Karen O. cover of Led Zepellin's "Immigrant Song," that absolutely shreds. From the get-go, Fincher sets the tone for the movie - it's dark, dangerous, and 100% rock n' roll. After the mind-blowing credits sequence, however, the movie slows down a great deal. Much of our time is spent with Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist - a journalist and co-publisher of Millenium, a magazine that investigates crime and vice. Craig is very solid as Blomkvist, and he does a good job of mixing his usual intensity with a bit of intellectualism and dorkiness. But, there's also a bit of a disconnect between Craig - he is James Bond, afterall - and this character who, as I understand it, is usually portrayed as a bit shaggier and frumpier. Ultimately though, the main issue is just that Mikael just isn't as interesting as Lisbeth, and so the main mystery story only truly begins to crackle with real consistency once the two of them are united. Unfortunately, it takes a good hour or so for that to happen. To get to that point, we alternate between Mikael's exposition-filled segments, and Lisbeth's much-more-compelling storylines.

Mikael, as it turns out, has been recruited by a billionaire industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to help solve a forty-year-old mystery. Decades ago, Henrik's daughter went missing - presumed dead. Henrik always suspected murder, but since his entire extended family lived on a small, isolated private island, that meant that one of the family members had to have done the deed. Mikael -whose magazine is having financial problems after a libel suit from a scheming competitor - decides to take Henrik up on his generous financial offer. He takes up residence on Henrik's island - an increasingly dangerous place given that one of the Vanger clan is potentially the killer.

Meanwhile, the young, sullen, goth-punk girl Lisbeth scrapes by as a researcher for a large investigative firm. Even though she's technically just a gopher, she's considered a secret weapon by the firm due to her genius-level computer skills and photographic memory. As it turns out, this firm is hired by Henrick Vanger to investigate Mikael. Before Henrik hires him, he wants to make sure that he can be trusted to work this secret case. We see Lisbeth's resourcefulness and cold bluntness in action as she digs up dirt on Mikael (her assessment of his sex life is particularly amusing as a callous critique). But we also see that Lisbeth is dealing with some very serious baggage. Her father is a near-vegetable. She's on her own, essentially, with no friends or confidantes. Her job is just barely keeping her from being institutionalized following her past indiscretions. And one state worker in particular is intent on abusing his position of power, with Lisbeth as his unwitting victim.

That to me is where the film suddenly kicks into overdrive - when Lisbeth is confronted with this horrible man who reveals himself as a monster, a rapist. Suddenly, we see that Lisbeth isn't just some goth poseur, but something entirely different. She is the monster that men like this created - a new-age girl who is a reaction to and reflection of the worst that society has to offer. Fincher and Mara take us to some very, very dark places with Lisbeth, but they do so in a way that makes the character that much stronger and more resilient. This is an antihero who has suffered, and now, we want to see her make others suffer.

When Lisbeth and Mikael finally meet and begin working together on the Vanger mystery, the build-up of Lisbeth's character has been so strong that it's a thrill to now see her in this other, bigger situation. The strange relationship she has with Mikael is a little hard to get a handle on, but the two of them slowly but doggedly putting the puzzle pieces together is thrilling. Once the killer is revealed, well, that's when Fincher seems to really start having fun, taking the movie into delightfully twisted, Silence of the Lambs-style territory. By this point, I was on the edge of my seat.

Finally, though, the film continues with an extended epilogue that goes on long after the Vanger mystery has been solved. It feels like a bit of a comedown after such an exciting resolution and hero vs. villain face-off. If this were a TV show, then things might feel more organic. But Fincher is constrained to some extent by the structure of the novel, and so there is, ultimately, A LOT crammed into this film. A sprawling mystery involving dozens of Vanger family members and possible suspects, the ongoing personal issues of Mikael and Lisbeth, and then, a long final sequence that addresses the fate of the Millennium magazine.

The movie has its ups and downs, but I felt like when it was firing on all cylinders, it really and truly kicked ass. There are some fantastic, applause-worthy scenes - most of them coming via Rooney Mara, who again, just owns it as Lisbeth, mixing droll humor with genuine pathos and pain and a good, old-fashioned dose of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. That said, there is some stellar work here from actors like Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and more. I'll also give credit to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who turn in another moody, ominous score. Not quite as strong as their work in The Social Network, perhaps, but very good nonetheless. I will say though, there is some great use of music in this movie. The aforementioned "Immigrant Song"-infused opening, for example - and, one of the most ingenious and whacked-out uses of Enya probably ever in a movie.

As for Fincher, I think his work here is strong. I think we've gotten so used to him outdoing himself that it's, almost, strangely disappointing to see him here relying on his old bag of tricks to a large extent. There are shades of movies like Zodiac and The Social Network in the direction (though this one again proves that no one can make computer-research cool like Fincher). But generally, the direction is pretty straightforward. Other than the opening credits, there aren't many scenes where Fincher really stretches much or lets loose. Still, few could tell this story as well as Fincher, and one thing you've got to give the guy is that he can do dark, cold, dank, and ominous better than anyone. The frosty Swedish landscape is made all the more foreboding due to Fincher's directorial prowess.

At the end of the day, I came away from this one a believer in the awesomeness of Lisbeth Salander, and am now eager to see her further adventures. While I do think the film's pacing was at times lagging, and its mystery plot at times confusing, as an introduction to these characters and this franchise, I felt that this was really strong, absorbing, stuff. At a certain point, I was simply won over by the movie's formidable badass-quotient and, eventually, I found myself totally sucked in to its dark world. What can I say, Mara-as-Lisabeth is a new punk rock princess for the ages.

My Grade: A-

No comments: