Friday, December 23, 2011

Sealed in ice - 'Dragon Tattoo' review

It's hard to imagine a better adaptation of Stieg Larsson's international best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo existing (and that most certainly includes the well-acted but sloppily consolidated Swedish version).

It's hard to imagine any other director than David Fincher possibly tackling the material. While it might lack the raw shock and awe of his absolute best, that has more to do with my knowing the novel than it does any of the beautifully cold sequences he strings together in the most breakneck 160 minutes of the year. Dragon Tattoo fits Fincher like a glove, and its basic plot might as well be a "greatest hits" sampling of his best movies: a serial killer replete with Biblical allusions? Sounds like Se7en to me. A gigantic waterfall of information as investigative reporters try to piece together the events of old murders? Seems a lot like Zodiac. Tech-savvy outcasts bending the Internet to their will? Shades of The Social Network. There's even a sense that Jodie Foster's mom-turned-badass in Panic Room is a banal precursor to the rage he finds in the iconic Lisbeth Salander.

It should be no surprise, then, how effortless The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels. Far from being a breezy mainstream film (as some have accused it, clearly the criticism of those who wanted Fincher to exceed The Social Network or felt he was taking a step back in his career by merely making the film), every moment is so well-calculated, moves with such perfect modulations of camera movement, editing, and sound-scape, that it's easy to simply get lost inside the film.

Keeping the film in Sweden gives Fincher the ability to work wonders with the icy desolation, locking his world-weary journalist protagonist Mikael Blomkvist in a purgatory of shivers and snowfalls. Daniel Craig strips his suave Bond style, making Blomkvist appear varying shades of tired and ragged, matching a clever wit with a profound defeatism. His investigation into a 40-year old murder mystery is the film's centerpiece drama, giving Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian a sturdy genre framework to work with.

Some of the film's best, most cinematic and absorbing sequences are merely the recapping of information, with wordless flashbacks, highlighted documents, and blurry photographs streaming across the screen in mountainous montages. The flow and process of information--not just in documents, but digitally as well--becomes a significant part of the film in its first two acts.

And that process of information is where the film starts working its counterpoint in. Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker extraordinaire, tracks Blomkvist's computer, fascinated by him after performing a background check. A social outcast and ward of the state, the digital landscape gives her a place to free herself from the masculine playground of society and take control. Rooney Mara, after threatening to steal The Social Network in two brief but towering scenes, becomes a full-fledged actress to be reckoned with, completely transforming her body through intense dieting, piercings, and makeup to fully inhabit this psychologically complex character. Whether she's staring blankly at a document or taking exacting revenge on an abusive guardian, she is completely fascinating, terrifying, and earns both our respect and sympathy. She can communicate entire worlds of thought with a blank stare.

More than that, though, Fincher and Mara never let Lisbeth dominate the film. While the duality of her is that she both draws attention to her exclusion from society through her physical appearance and yet uses that appearance as a way to shield herself from society, her best moments are her interactions with Craig or simply watching her use a computer. She is, at the very least, hypnotic

Reteaming with much of his Social Network crew--notably cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross--attentive viewers might notice a lot of similarities in filming style. The detached, tech-infused score perfectly communicates isolation, dread, and anxiety, simmering under the surface and always working in favor of the pacing of the images (one gets the impression Fincher edited certain sequences to the music, instead of vice versa).

The editing, odd as it may seem to suggest, gets more and more impressive as the film goes on. It almost starts out looking too conventional for Fincher, but as the cross-cutting becomes more intense, and the suspense starts being smothered on at the climax, the editing takes more hard, brutal cuts. The whole look of the film is filled with grungy greens and steely blues, with multiple layers of lighting, lots of scenes that appear diegetically lit, and uses simple camera tracks or pans to communicate large changes in particular moments.

The whole design of the film is absolutely immaculate, controlled, harnessed. It is the most marvelous kind of detective movie, where solving the crime isn't so much important as what the crime signifies, and how the characters interact as the mystery develops. There is a lot to swallow in terms of Sweden's history, how Larsson imagines an entire society wrecked by its unwillingness to address its sores, hobbling forward on its horrific violence. Much of this may be lost in the American translation, admittedly. Fincher directs this with an eye on narrative and character, but Zaillian's masterful adaptation (a true crash course in how to do book-to-film without losing anything) teases out this cultural critique for those who would seek it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo proves that, in the hands of a master, even the most repellant, sadistic of acts can be utterly compelling and fascinating. Like all of David Fincher's films, it has the feeling of being held in a vice grip. And yet, that grip is oddly pleasurable.

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