Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Oscars 2011 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

While audiences already familiar with Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy have no doubt devoured Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, rallying the mob to decry David Fincher's latest as simply a 'cash grab' or 'Americanized remake' is something you'll want to think twice about.

More than two years after the initial filmic adaptation of Larsson's first crime novel, David Fincher's hotly anticipated remake has reached a publicity fever pitch. From broken embargoes committed by well-known critics to creative viral campaigns, it's easy to dismiss the hype as just another bid by a production company to get their picture out for awards season. If Let Me In was any indication earlier this year, sometimes hype over the 'Americanized' product meets with puzzled reviews. Given that a portion of the public has now been able to see Dragon Tattoo, the question is not whether it can do the original film or even the source material justice, but rather if it succeeds as a film in any sense of the word. To answer this question bluntly I proffer that, yes, this film is a success.

The cold, grey landscapes and green-tinted interiors that host much of the action in the American 're-imagining' of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are as familiar to fans of David Fincher's filmography as the picture's brutal yet surprisingly suggestive violence. Held over from the ambitiously ill-fated Zodiac (a picture that, while regarded in high esteem, ultimately proved too sprawling and untidy for the popcorn crowd), Fincher's sly visual style is as disciplined as it's ever been. Gone are the flickering filters and whip-pans of Fight Club and Panic Room, leaving space for a breathable and professional image. What the film lacks in imagistic flair, however, it more than amply makes up for in its soundtrack and its cast.

For the sake of reviewing a film based on its own merits, it is here I leave the comparisons between this film and Oplev's behind. I went into this film with very little remembrance of the source material and let it wash over me anew. Following a James Bond-esque animated title sequence featuring a remix of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" as imagined by the consistently awesome Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the story swiftly finds its feet as it hits the ground running. For those who are unfamiliar, the proceedings detail the storylines of two separate characters and their eventual teaming, criss-crossing their experiences to solve a particularly macabre mystery. Shamed from his position as an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is commissioned by Henrik Vanger (the inimitable Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder/disappearance of his niece 40 years earlier. Finding himself amongst a wealthy and terribly dysfunctional family on a small Swedish island, he soon crosses paths with Lisbeth Salander (Social Network's Rooney Mara), a troubled young private investigator with a penchant for piercings and violence.

Rounding out the picture's remarkable cast is Robin Wright as Mikael's co-editor and romantic fling and a conspicuous Stellan Skarsgard as a Vanger relative who utilizes Abba in a much different way than his previous film roles might suggest. It is in each of the film's characters' nuanced performances that Draon Tattoo truly shines. From the haunted history of the Vanger family revealed in Plummer's eyes to the questionable smirks that barely register on Skarsgard's face, the meat of the film lies in its characters. Fincher often lets off on the dialogue, letting the actors' body language do the work. The structure of the film, however, would fall apart if it weren't for its two leads and its sound design, both factors that greatly contribute to Dragon Tattoo's success.

Daniel Craig hasn't had a remarkable go of it since Casino Royale, but if his coolly meek and decidedly un-macho performance here is any indication, this will prove that he's up to the task of carrying a complicated film on his shoulders when given the chance. Likewise, Mara's outwardly cold she-demon masks a gentle soul, and every detail of her character's affections, reservations, and complexities is readable on her stern face. Kudos must be given to both her and Plummer for their brave performances here. Plummer has been choosing roles in his later career many wouldn't have expected him to choose (his role here echoes the depth of his father figure in Mike Mills' Beginners from last year), while Mara is proving that she is willing to go to great lengths to illustrate the nuances of what could have been a one-dimensional, cookie cutter figure. In one of the film's more horrific sequences, she manages to elevate what would normally constitute a schlocky rape-revenge subplot to one that forces the audience (and her assailant) to examine what they really know about her character.

It is finally the film's sound design that works as Dragon Tattoo's trump card. Hot off the academy award-winning soundtrack for Fincher's Social Network, Reznor and Ross again prove that it's the subtleties that make a good movie. They wisely know when to ramp up the audio (a car accident early in the film features a very interesting and multi-layered soundtrack) and also when to soften it to sometimes horrifying effect (there are a few moments of realization I won't reveal here that sent shivers up my back due to the lack of music).

Astute direction and a pitch-perfect cast elevate this material from a pulpy, macabre, b-grade thriller to something much darker and thematically complex. Though a much different picture, think of John Dahl's The Last Seduction: Gritty, sleazy, and atonal, but ultimately elevated beyond its source material through a keen eye and a daring cast. Though The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly isn't without its flaws - some moments seem intent on connecting Lisbeth's bisexuality and body modification to a troublesome past, which is problematic - it is much better than it might have been in lesser hands. What results is a well-balanced whodunnit glossed with an auteurist sheen. The Fincher fanboys will be satisfied, and I'd like to believe the director's tweaking of Larsson's source material makes for a more slender and enjoyable experience, even given its nearly 3 hour running time.


1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of what you've said but (me being me) I have a couple of queries about what exactly you meant with a couple of statements. On the whole though, yes, what an AWESOME film with an excellent soundtrack!