Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

When it was announced that Tomas Alfredson's vampire tale Let the Right One In (2008) would receive an English language remake, cinephiles were left scratching their heads. Alfredson's Swedish film was an outstanding entry in the vampire genre, one filled with memorable sequences and images, and a climax that left many shuddering in their seats. So even though Matt Reeves' remake (titled Let Me In) was generally well-received, the question still remained: how is the remake justified other than as a means to get money out of those audience members with a fear of subtitles? At the end of the day, there really wasn't. Mr. Reeves' film is not a bad; it's actually nicely done. The only problem is that it feels redundant, as though Alfredson's excellent take was being pushed aside after not even being given proper recognition. The question remains, then, is there ever a time when an English-language remake or re-adaptation is actually worth more than a few extra dollars? In the case of David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

The film, a re-adaptation of the first installment of Stieg Larrson's hugely successful crime trilogy, isn't based off of anything remarkable. Though the trilogy does paint an intriguing picture of a highly corrupt Sweden, it also suffered its share of flaws that kept it from rising above rather pedestrian levels. The one aspect the stories have always had going for them, the real draw, comes down to one character: bisexual punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander. Previously embodied by Noomi Rapace, the role is now brought to life by Rooney Mara, who made her mark last year in the opening scene of Fincher's The Social Network. The question, then, was whether she would be able to move from that bit part to a leading role, and she has. Her stoic, steely gazes never grow repetitive or lazy, even though there's not as much meaning behind them as the story (or the series' die hard fans) would like us to believe. Mara is prettier and more delicate in appearance than Rapace, but this only makes her more effective when she unleashes her rage. She is, like just about everything else in this version of the story, superior to the Swedish counterpart, even if the character remains little more than a very cool idea.

For, like Mara's performance, Dragon Tattoo's story and characters are not exactly filled with great depth. Remove Lisbeth from the equation, and you have the potential to end up with little more than CSI: Stockholm. Thankfully, with the script from Steven Zaillian and under David Fincher's direction, the story reaches what is likely its best iteration possible. After a very brief opening scene, the film plunges us into a three minute credits sequence set to Karen O and Trent Reznor's cover of "Immigrant Song," filled with constantly shifting, inky images. It's dark, grungy, and weird, and it gets the film off on the right foot, even if the film itself never quite reaches the same high. It's telling, then, that the film's best moment comes straight from Fincher's mind, and not the source material. That said, in returning to the serial killer/crime genre (previously: Se7en, Zodiac), Fincher's meticulous gifts have elevated Larrson's story and characters as much as he can, all while making the whole affair come across as infinitely more cinematic than any of the Swedish versions.

A good deal of this has to do with Fincher's outstanding team of collaborators. First and foremost is cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who lights and colors the scenes in a way that makes the slightly washed-out nature of the digital photography still feel rich, as opposed to drained. Scoring duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who picked up the Original Score Oscar for The Social Network) return as well. Originally stating that they would try a more traditional, orchestral score, it's clear that the pair changed their minds later. Their music, more than fitting for the style, is filled with strange and ominous electronic sounds that only make the film, even in its more mundane moments, feel absorbing. How well individual pieces will hold up on their own is questionable, but when it comes to working with the images, it's just about flawless work. There's also the editing duo of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who picked up the Best Editing Oscar for The Social Network, who help piece the film together beautifully, accentuating Fincher's more fluid pacing. These three elements come together beautifully in a near-wordless stretch where Lisbeth and Mikael, in different locations, finally realize who the hidden villain of the mystery is. So even though a great deal of the plot is burdened with exposition, scenes like this help restore a sense of story telling order.

One of the story's biggest hurdles is that it keeps Mara's Lisbeth and Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomqvist apart for such a long time. Here, however, the pair's time apart, though still a little too long, feels more purposeful and elegantly composed. Zaillian's script also makes the smart decision to show Lisbeth doing some research on an enemy of Blomqvist's before they even meet. It ties in nicely to how the script has changed the ending, and prevents the resolution of that subplot from feeling like a really cheap form of deus ex machina. Additionally, Zaillian's script makes changes to the two leading characters, both of which work for the better. Lisbeth, while still cold and reserved, has the occasional flash of vulnerability, which adds a shade or two of characterization missing from the Swedish film, even though it's nothing remarkable. More impressive is how Zaillian has handled Blomqvist. In both the books and the Swedish films, the character has stood out as a painfully obvious author-insert (Larrson himself was something of a crusading journalist/womanizer). This version of Blomqvist, despite sleeping with two women over the course of the story, still feels more fitting for the story. In making Mikael less of a ladies man while casting the much more charismatic Daniel Craig (although just about anyone would have been better than Mikael Nyqvist) in the role, the character finally achieves the right balance. Other roles, filled out by Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Geraldine James, and Joely Richardson, are all nicely handled, even when considering their relatively limited screen time.

The biggest problem, as stated before, is simply the source material. Zaillian's alteration to the ending allows for resolution and adds a different angle to Lisbeth and Mikael's relationship that can be explored for the sequels (Fincher will likely direct the second and third films back-to-back, at a still-undecided time). A pity, then, that he didn't have the courage to depart further from the source material still. Had Zaillian, under Fincher's guidance, taken the characters and overarching plot, but completely reworked the scene-by-scene story, we could have had a truly brilliant entry in the cinematic crime genre. What we're left with however, is still worthy of admiration. The cast is game, the direction beautiful, and the artistic and technical aspects flawless. And most importantly, the film, through its differences in narrative and in style, feels justified. I'm not going to deny that making an English-language version of the film was a cash grab. It absolutely was. Thankfully, this is one cash grab that, despite its limitations, rises above its origins to the point where it deserves to become the definitive version of this story through level after level of icy Scandinavian hell. In Fincher (and Mara, and Craig, etc...) We Trust.

Grade: B/B+

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